The Law Society of Upper Canada’s articling task force has reported a three-percentage-point increase in Ontario’s articling shortage this year in a grim forecast that has left law students and lawyers grappling for answers.
Task force chairman Tom Conway made the announcement during Convocation proceedings on April 26. According to his update, 15 per cent of applicants were without an articling position this year.
That’s up from 12 per cent last year. That means roughly one in seven law students will be unable to find an articling position by 2013.
“Articling is an issue in which the profession is fully engaged and we need time to consider everything we heard during the consultation process and thoroughly study all the submissions we’ve received,” said Conway.
“The task force is very pleased with the interest shown and with the quality of written submissions.”
The law society created the articling task force in June 2011 in a bid to address a continuing decline in articling positions across the province.
Since then, it has released several reports with the most recent submitted to Convocation in February.
In addition, it has held 10 consultation sessions across the province and received more than 100 written submissions for consideration in its final report.
It has now put off releasing the final report until this fall after earlier planning to do so this spring.
While the latest figures are concerning, the incoming president of the University of Toronto Students’ Law Society suggests they could be masking an even larger articling crisis.
“The number may not seem like much but it could actually be quite misleading,” says Albert Lin.
“The effects of the articling shortage occur over time and when you take into account the number of students who weren’t able to find articling positions last year, combined with those who will not find them this year, the number could really be much larger.”
According to a draft report for the law society’s professional development and competence committee, alternatives to articling, such as a practical legal training course, may help close the gap.
Ontario Bar Association president Paul Sweeny says that while a course and other solutions offered by the task force may help with the shortage in the interim, the profession needs to come up with more permanent answers.
“It seems to be a problem that is growing and it has to be addressed,” says Sweeny. “We’ll have to look into how deeply the shortage is impacted by the economy and what role the increasing number of law students plays in the current articling shortage.
I think right now articling experiences can be varied, but consistency and care will have to be taken with any new approach.”
According to the draft report, large- and medium-sized law firms currently offer the bulk of articling positions in Ontario with smaller firms failing to play a significant role in the job market.
The law society has attempted to change that but hasn’t been successful so far.
“Law students are left facing a wall with no real ability to scale it and it’s getting worse over time,” says Osgoode Hall Law School dean Lorne Sossin.
“When they’ve tried everything they could think of and nothing works, perhaps its time to turn to the model itself. That model is currently creating a bottleneck between supply and demand and perhaps it’s time we find a different pathway to address that issue.”
But Sossin says that as more and more students enter Ontario’s law schools, the profession should resist the urge to simply create positions in the interim that won’t meet their needs.
“We have to be careful not to create articling positions just for the sake of creating positions,” says Sossin.
“That being said, there really is no advantage to having 15 per cent of law students looking for an articling position only to discover there are none.
Other provinces don’t seem to have this problem and I think Ontario could benefit from alternative pathways to articling that would expose law students to more choices.”
According to Sossin, those options could include a merit-focused approach to articling based on grades and the creation of a more structured and supportive program that would offer an alternative to the 10-month articling position currently required.
“I think a number of things are possible here with the right amount of planning and political will,” says Sossin. “I don’t sense there’s any appetite for maintaing the status quo.”
In the meantime, Lin says he’ll continue to focus on what he can do to give himself a competitive edge on the articling front even if the shortage continues to grow.
“Right now, I think a lot of students are just focusing on what they can do and are trying not to concern themselves too much with the statistics,” he says.
“Perhaps we take a rather myopic view of the situation, but what can you do when it’s something you’re really passionate about?”
For more, see "Articling crisis set to grow" and "Time to ditch sacred cows in addressing articling crisis."