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Articling crisis set to grow

|Written By Michael McKiernan

A spike in applicants fighting it out for a static pool of articling positions has created a crisis in the province.

Robert Shawyer recently hired an articling student after discovering he needed only three years of experience to become a principal.

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.

For related content, see "Ontario needs a northern law school."

  • Usman Hannan
    Lawyers learn through-out their professional career. A green lawyer can get ripe with some exposure, some sooner than others. If you throw out a fresh law student to profession, she will kep learning and growing as sure as one learns to walk. Articling should be seen from that perspective.

    When 'articling' becomes a barrier to entry into the legal profession, which is increasingly becoming the case now, then articling should become optional and Canadian law schools should look at US law schools and learn from them how they train lawyers who are ready for at least the basics of profession without articling. After all, many Canadian law schools have adopted the JD designation following the US suit. Isn't it disgraceful to become a Juris Doctor and don't know how to interview a client, what is a retainer, or how to give a simple legal advice?

    After first year two years of law school, the entire third year should be totally vocational lawyer training.
  • Neena Gupta
    Regrettably, law schools do not do an adequate job of training young lawyers. They leave it to the profession to "train lawyers." While there is a gap between school and practice in every profession, the gap in our profession is larger than most. Students come out of law schools with 3 years of education and often without the ability to do even the simplest of tasks. The Law Society recognizes graduates of law schools, but does not exert its profound influence in requiring law schools to teach skills. Effectively, the profession is required to teach professional skills without compensation. I take my responsibilities as a mentor seriously, but it is a huge time commitment that takes away time from my family, community involvement and billable work.
  • helene Puccini
    There are now 40,000 lawyers in Ontario, not 30,000. Benchers should take note of this discussion and all the interests of the various parties.
  • David
    More LSUC "regulating in the public interest" but not in its fee-paying members' interests once again.

    We already have 30,0000 lawyers and 2,500 paralegals in Ontario. Hordes of them are not practising - there's not enough work to employ those who've already earned a place to be here.

    Remove articling altogether and that situation will deteriorate enormously.

    One solution: license fewer new members annually, gear the number of spots to projected economic growth, and go by the highest licensing exam scores. Start right now.

    Oh, and replace LSUC with an administrative body that's actually interested in helping licensee lawyers to earn a living salary.
  • Ontario 2011 Grad
    I'm a B-average new grad with no luck finding articles. Frustrated, but in good company: I was stunned to learn how many of my class are in the same boat. The LSUC figures are probably off. Many students don't register for the bar/articles process until they have articles lined up since they can't afford to incur the fees or risk starting the 3yr time limit.

    I don't regret going to law school. I knew it was very competitive & its my job to find employment. I didn't realize only 8.5% of Ont. firms offered articles, or the effects of enrollment increases & decline in articling jobs due to the legal economy.

    I think articling is valuable: its the practice stuff schools don't teach. As the drought worsens, schools & LSUC must emphasize more practical courses and mandatory co-ops with firms to enable skills development. Immediately, not a year or 5 years from now.
  • George
    And on a different note, but still relating to this article, just because there are more graduates who seek to be admitted to the bar doesn't mean that they all should be, especially when there seems to be such a saturation in the legal market at the junior level. The profession should maintain high standards, and I think we can all agree that the ability to simply graduate from a law school is nothing special. Applicants to law school should understand that getting in is no guarantee of being admitted to the profession, and that they will face difficulty securing employment if they end up in the bottom of their class (and perhaps more so in schools with lower admissions standards, especially certain foreign ones). However, despite the fact that people should do their research before embarking on this career, I still think it's irresponsible for there to be an increase in the number of law students in Ontario, whether through existing or new law schools.
  • George
    Just because doing document review at a large corporate firm isn't the best training for an apprentice, doesn't mean that articling should be eliminated entirely. Having a U.S.-style system where anyone can get into a law school and become a lawyer is not in the best interests of the public or the profession (though sadly those in charge don't get this and there is a push for another law school in Ontario). Does anyone honestly think that how well one is able to memorize specific rules and regurgitate them on an exam is an indicator of that person's ability to practice law? A more rigorous bar exam would just be a more difficult hoop to jump through. Future legal professionals ought to be trained for the tasks they are expected to do, and that involves more than sitting in on lectures and writing exams.
  • Rob
    It isn't the case that anyone can get into law school and become a lawyer in the US - they have to meet all the requirements for both, and that includes passing a rigorous bar examination that often includes a practical document production/assembly component in many states. But if they can jump through that hoop, they can become a lawyer and then gain further experience.

    In Ontario (and Canada generally), which for all intents and purposes operates a medieval guild system in the 21st century, anyone who can't convince any particular employer that they fit into their own business development or institutional scheme can't become a lawyer at all - no matter how talented they are, or what other merits they may have! It's unfair, and leaves the door wide open to all sorts of subtle and not so subtle discrimination against articling candidates on bases that have nothing to do with their ability to practice law.
  • George
    I see what you're saying. I guess it's a balance between promoting practical experience and removing the unfairness in being able to secure such practical experience. However, I still wouldn't suggest that the former should be scrapped just because of the difficulty of eliminating the latter. Moreover, I think it can be said that employers of articling students still perceive differences in the quality of the candidates, and the basis of this perception is probably quite uniform in many aspects (e.g. grades, work experience, extra-curricular involvement); so it's arguable that the 'better' candidates are still securing articling spots.
  • helene Puccini
    Law students are a cash cow for universities. Note the ridiculously high increases in tuition of the last few years. Law schools should have to limit the number of students they take to the number of articling positions available. That will never happen. What will happen is that articling will be eliminated and law schools will sell more courses to supplement. More cash cows. Large law firms have their own in-house educational programs, so articling does not really matter to them. So future lawyers better have a lot of money and a parent or relative to get them a job in a law firm. I guess the bad old days are here again. It did not take long.
  • Cheated
    I agree!
    Unfortunately, the problem extends beyond ridiculously high tuition to conflicts of interest and relentless increases in class sizes.

    This year, law students at the University of Toronto have had to sit on the stairs in over-packed classrooms, and there has been an increase in the number of courses taught by temporary "lecturers" as opposed to real professors. I guess it's cheaper to make deals with firms (i.e. partners "teach" for the prestige) than to hire actual professors...

    Moreover, the law school is also trying to expand its internationally trained lawyers program. It really makes a JD student wonder - why pay for 3 years of law school when you can just study law elsewhere and pay for 1 year to qualify in Ontario? How is the school going to find articling positions for its internationally trained lawyers and the regular JDs?

    I am strongly considering whether I should transfer to another law school for third-year.
  • commonsensical
    Actually, most internationally trained students are Canadian students educated with a B.A or B.S.C in Canada who later go abroad seeking a different (cultural and legal) experience than the traditional Canadian legal experience. When they come back to Canada this is extremely valuable considering the globalization of legal services

    Also, you don't get to become a lawyer in Canada with 1 year of training. You need to have a proper common law degree from elsewhere (that might include fast-track 2 year programs from Oxford for example, but it's not the open book exams of Canadian schools, that's for sure). I don't know where you're getting your information from. Many students study in universities more than 3 times as old as Canada itself. You know, they've been practicing and studying law in England, for example, for long enough to know what they're doing.

    Dob't blame the competition. The problems are systemic and institutional.
  • Rob
    The LSUC should long ago have abandoned articling for a comprehensive and rigorous US-style bar examination. After all, who really believes first year associates in the US are a menace to the public because they haven't articled? It doesn't appear to be a concern down there - they have confidence in their system, and it's certainly more fair to students than ours. You become a lawyer (or not) on your own merits, not because any particular firm choses to hire you (or not).

    Unfortunately, articling has simply become an entrenched rationale for the big firms to get a cheap pool of student labour rather than have to pay full associate salaries to their entry-level hires, and the LSUC and law schools collaborate with them.
  • David Debenham
    I believe the Law Society of Upper Canada already did a study on articling via a Committee headed by former LSUC treasurer Vern Krishna. The Licensing & Accreditation Task Force was appointed in March 2007 and published a report a year later. How will this new study differ from that one?
  • Elvis
    Well done Laurie. It's like ritual - frantic exchange of calls and texts and formations of committees after elections with same people and playcards and even the chants haven't changed.
    In the absence of functioning mechanisms, certain sorts of criminal behavious becomes inevitable. The lesson to learn from 37.5% turn out in Benchers election: continued incivility suspentions, corruption in LSUC licensing and staff, Pro Bono immorality, scarcity of articling positions and exploiting students forcing them to work without remuniration and their sexual exploitations.
    Even the silence after is familiar. How do I defend the state of the legal services? What question do I ask? In the Law Society where the issue of honour, constitutional rights and dignity have been distorted to shun sick and hungry citizens and ignored the dead bodies of street people lying on roadsides, how do I even begin to mourn.
    No matter what we call it, I see Law Society Spring blossoming.
  • Anders Bruun
    I articled 32 years ago and there was an articling crisis then as thesecond oil boom in Alberta collapsed. It seems there has been an articling crisis every year since then. I was mentored for about 8 years by a lawyer who got his call in 1933, which was actually a great year for lawyers. His take on the articling crisis was," Ther is always a shortage of really good students." I suspect this is true today.
  • Skeptical
    Another way to look at this is not that there are too many students but that there is far less entry level work that can be assigned to them - at least not under the umbrella of the traditional firm. Demand is for lawyers that are fully formed. Much of the work that students used to do for training is increasingly being taken up (perhaps even more efficiently) by do-it-yourself internet sites or by paralegals. Soon, offshoring will be added to that list. So, where will the work for students come from? Increasingly only the very large firms will have the necessary volume of these entry level assignments. Consider also the increasing costs of legal education as salary expectations of indebted students trend in exactly the opposite direction to demand for these positions. Is the law society really ready to take on outsourcing, aggregation of legal services in large firms, and the increasing costs of a legal education - in crafting a lasting solution to this problem?
  • Gerry Laarakker
    And then there is the new lawschool opening up in Kamloops, BC. Why? Articling is an important part of becoming a lawyer; my law school (Osgoode) told us thety didn't train lawyers. they taught law instead ...
  • Ron
    The Treasurer is incorrect in that there is no shortage of lawyers, especially junior associate lawyers. Indeed, increasing the number of law school grads (as was incorrectly endorsed by the LSUC) and articling positions will simply result in more underemployed and unemployed associates: it will push the problem down the line. As for graduates from Britain and Australia, the LSUC should realize that a law degree from such countries is not the same as a Canadian degree as those degrees can be granted right out of high school. Maybe the LSUC should have a policy whereby Canadian educated citizens and landed immigrants are given preference for articles and places in the admissions program.
  • Mitchell Kowalski
    The Treasurer's concern is at odds with the fact that she and the rest of Convocation approved a new law school for Ontario - the result will be even more unemployed articling students.
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