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Playing matchmaker with young lawyers

|Written By Judy Van Rhijn

If you go to see a lawyer in a small firm or solo practice in Ontario, chances are they''ll be sporting a good crop of grey hairs.

The inability of small firms to attract articling students and young lawyers is reaching crisis proportions now that the baby boomers are contemplating retirement and wondering who will provide legal services to their community when they are gone.

That's why efforts are underway to match up the students who are willing with the small firms that are wanting.

The Law Society of Upper Canada's "Final Report of the Sole Practitioner and Small Firm Task Force" released a year ago, touched on the difficulties of recruiting fresh legal talent in Recommendation 5. It proposes a communications strategy to inform lawyers, law students, and articling students of the opportunities, challenges and key success factors of solo and small-firm practice.

Among the responses to this report is a submission from the County of Carleton Law Association (CCLA), which covers Ottawa and Eastern Ontario. It says that communicating is not enough. There must be practical steps taken towards creating the opportunities.

"A large proportion of our membership are small firms or sole practitioners," says Thomas Conway, a partner at McCarthy T?trault LLP in Ottawa and president of the CCLA. "That's the nature of practice in Ottawa. We conducted a fairly intensive review, with one-on-one meetings and town hall meetings to find out the response to the 'Soles and Smalls' [the nickname for the LSUC report]. A lot of our members don't think students are interested in going to practices like theirs and they have no way of competing for talented students."

The CCLA also canvassed university and student groups, with unexpected results.

"There is an interesting trend away from larger firms, which have traditionally been seen as offering security and great breadth and depth of practice. Law students these days are not interested in the kind of lifestyle that large firms offer," says Conway.

"From my own experience teaching trial advocacy in law schools, I'd say they are thinking globally but working locally. They want to provide legal services to ordinary folks at prices ordinary folks can afford."

This positive development is confirmed by career advisors in law faculties across the province, who say there are many excellent students who would be excited to apply for articles off Bay Street if the opportunities existed.

Lisa Blair, manager of student services at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Law (Common Law), is frustrated by requests from students to find them summer and articling jobs in small practices.

"We are lucky to be invited to conferences where they display products lawyers want to buy. I feel like taking articling students and displaying them there," she jokes. "I have offered to gift-wrap them on occasion!"

Blair believes that many small firms are not confident they can offer a broad enough experience.

"They should keep in mind that lots of boutiques offer great articles," she says. "We're not talking about high-school students here. These students come to university knowing that they want to practise family law or criminal law."

Lianne Krakeur, who manages the career development office at the University of Toronto, confirms that while the vast majority of her students stay in major urban centres, it is because that is where the summer and articling jobs are.

"Non-urban law firms have got to get into the job market early," she advises. "They can do lateral hiring later on, but by then the grads have been working for three to five years and are used to a certain income. It's hard to adjust."

She believes there are older alumni looking for lifestyle changes and suggests that firms and young alumni should be trying to make connections through professional organizations.

The CCLA believes it should not just be up to law firms and students to feel out a match. They believe the LSUC can do a great deal to reduce the financial and practical barriers to job creation, particularly since the new 10-month articling period leaves small firms without a student for two months of the year. Without some added incentive, this makes hiring a paralegal for the full 12 months a much more attractive option.

Some of the very practical suggestions included in the CCLA submission involve the law society:

?    reducing the paperwork involved in taking on an articling student;

?    allowing split-articling or part-time articling opportunities;

?    allowing three- to four-month rotations between lawyers working in different fields;

?    setting up a matching funds program for underserviced areas or populations; and

?    expanding the Law Society Repayable Allowance Pro-gram.

It is also suggested that the government could forgive a portion of student loans for students who work in particular target areas.

"These are seemingly small things," says Conway, "but they are good, concrete things that can be done to remove practical impediments on both sides, and there is no reason not to do them."

The LSUC has called for university career groups and local law associations to put their resources towards the problem, to which the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law has responded. For the first time this year, a sole practitioner and small-practices fellowship has been offered. It will provide $2,000 each to three students to allow them to work 20 hours a week for a 10-week period over the summer.

Blair was amazed by the quantity of applicants with interesting proposals for articling jobs in small firms and communities. Of the three successful candidates, one wishes to work in a small real estate law practice in a small community, one wants to go north to an aboriginal community, and one wants to do entertainment law in a small practice.

"We are not encouraging them to do any work for free," says Blair. "With the debt load they come out with these days, it's not fair to expect them to work for free."

Another initiative to boost numbers outside the big cities is a proposal to establish a law school at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. Dr. Fred Gilbert, president and vice chancellor, confirms that a "powerful team" of lawyers and judges is currently developing a business plan and doing what due diligence requires. He estimates that the soonest the faculty could be operational is the fall of 2008.

 "The impetus came from outside the university," he says, "from the profession and the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, which represents first nations communities from the Manitoba border to the Quebec border."

Gilbert expects the students of the law school will swell the diminishing ranks of sole and small-firm lawyers in rural areas.

"It's what we have observed consistently across all the professional programming ? teaching, nursing, and soon physicians. If they are educated in the north, they stay in the north, partially because we're attracting half our student body from the north."

Meanwhile, small firms continue to struggle to find the right match for their practice. Caroline Burger of ZSA Legal Recruitment has some final words of warning for firms and young lawyers.

"Know what you are, who you are, and the culture of the firm before you make the match. Someone looking for growth and opportunity and lifestyle change might not be the right fit. Our rural clients are very busy. They don't want someone who thinks they'll be working from 10 until three. They need someone who can get the job done."

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