A spike in applicants fighting it out for a static pool of articling positions has created a crisis in the province.
And Law Society of Upper Canada Treasurer Laurie Pawlitza has decided to act, announcing to Convocation on May 26 that she’ll establish a working group to look into the issue of articling. Pawlitza intends to sit on the working group herself and will announce the rest of its members in the near future.
“For some years, the law society has been concerned with issues relating to articling and, in particular, the growing number of unplaced candidates,” she said. “This is a discussion that will overtake Convocation for some months.”
According to a staff report done for the law society’s professional development and competence committee, the number of registrants in the LSUC’s licensing program has steadily increased over the last five years to 1,750 in 2010 from 1,400 in 2006.
Yet the number of articling positions available hasn’t kept pace with that rise, leaving an increasing number of applicants on the sidelines. In 2008, 5.8 per cent of applicants ended their first year in the licensing process without an articling position. In 2011, that rate had more than doubled to 12.1 per cent.
Lawyers without a place at the end of the year must then fight it out with a brand-new cohort of law school graduates, which exacerbates the shortage.
The problem will only get worse in the next few years, with the University of Ottawa’s law school churning out an extra 100 graduates starting next year.
Even further down the line, Lakehead University’s planned law school received an endorsement earlier this year from the law society, while the University of Montreal is also planning a new common law program.
Ontario has also become a popular destination for foreign-trained lawyers, with a “dramatic spike” in applications from Australia, Britain, and other countries, according to Bencher Thomas Conway, who chairs the professional development and competence committee.
“The market for articling positions in Ontario cannot absorb the extra number of students who are required to obtain articles,” Conway told Convocation. “This trend is going to continue and the crisis is going to be exacerbated in the next couple of years if we continue along the course that we’re on at the moment.”
Robert Shawyer, a 2006 call who ran in the recent bencher elections, says the articling
gap threatens the stability of the licensing process. “To me, it’s quite serious,” he tells Law Times. “We’re basically not training enough young lawyers to replace the older lawyers.”
Shawyer is glad to see the law society paying attention to the articling problem but remains dubious about how much of a difference it will make. “When I hear the words working group, what I hear is they’re paying lip service to the issue and not doing anything concrete,” he says.
Shawyer struggled himself to secure an articling principal through the traditional interview process and eventually found one through a friend. The law society was no help, he says. “The programs they have are not helpful to people going through articling.
When I contacted them, the basic answer I got was, ‘Sorry, can’t help you. Look at our web site.’ Then you go on the web site, and there’s five jobs with 200 people chasing them.”
Like many of the province’s lawyers, Shawyer believes articling still has a place in the profession. “School can only teach so much. It’s the real life experience of working under a lawyer and getting your feet wet in the client’s file that teaches you how to be a lawyer.”
At Convocation, Conway said that was the clear message the last time the law society consulted the profession on articling during the 2008 task force on licensing and accreditation. That’s when lawyers balked at the idea of scrapping the process.
Many have come to view articling as a “scared cow,” according to Conway, who nevertheless suggested it may be time for a rethink given that a disproportionate number of those struggling to find positions come from equity-seeking groups.
“It appears that articling . . . is the barrier for many candidates who are good candidates,” he said. “They have graduated from law schools, they have good degrees, good credentials, but they can’t get into the profession.
We have to ensure that candidates that are licensed are competent and ethical, but is articling truly the way of doing that? Maybe it is, but maybe there are other ways of addressing the challenges that the articling crisis poses for us.”
The 2008 task force also recommended an exhaustive survey of the province’s law firms to get the lay of the land and sell them on ideas that may increase the number of articling positions, such as joint articles.
Ninety-four per cent of the province’s law firms, including sole practitioners, completed the survey. Only 661 firms contacted — 8.5 per cent of them — had articling positions available.
A followup survey targeted firms considered most likely to experience articling growth and that expressed an interest in the idea of joint articles.
From the 277 identified, just 11 firms indicated a firm commitment to joint articles. The effort resulted in just four matches, equating to two new articling positions. Neither position has actually been created yet.
“I don’t think we can blame the profession for not rising to the call because the profession in private practice is responding to a market that is essentially not permitting them, they think, on a business proposition to employ more articling students,” Conway said.
But Shawyer would like to see more efforts to promote articling to practising lawyers who don’t take on students or even financial incentives for potential principals.
“If they put more energy into explaining to lawyers what it means to hire an articling student, what the requirements are, and what the benefits are, I think you’d have more lawyers willing to actively consider hiring an articling student,” Shawyer says.
He recently hired an articling student himself after discovering he needed only three years of experience to become a principal.
“I do it because I value the training that an experienced lawyer can offer to a younger lawyer and I feel it’s my obligation to give back to the profession,” he says.
Even after clearing the articling hurdle, the report also shows that the problems may only have started for many new lawyers. A survey of new calls reveals that the number of respondents hired back by their articling firm fell to 42.8 per cent in June 2010 from 52.3 per cent in June 2005.
Over the same period, the total number of respondents employed at the time of their call declined to 55.5 per cent from 66.3 per cent.
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