A Criminal Mind: Take an articling student under your wing

Times are tough for criminal lawyers, but imagine wanting to enter the criminal defence field today. With a crushing student loan and few jobs to apply for, what do you do with the belief that you were put on this planet to make a difference?

Surely, if the government loaned you money to go to law school, it must be because there are jobs out there. But sadly, there are usually only about a half-dozen criminal articling positions in private practice in Ottawa each year.

The provincial Crown attorneys’ office here allots two articling positions while the federal Department of Justice hires four students who will each do a few months of criminal articles in the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.

There’s no doubt this dearth of criminal articling positions is a problem across the province. It’s probably hard to find positions anywhere in Ontario.  

Maybe I am a bit old school, but somehow it resonates in my consciousness that lawyers collectively and members of the bar individually have a duty and obligation to assist and educate prospective criminal defence counsel. Isn’t this what our principals and mentors did for us?

Let’s leave the dire state of legal aid and the commendable boycott to one side. Yes, the lack of funding is a large part of the problem, but the issue goes beyond that. Does the underfunding of legal aid release us, as members of the bar, from the responsibility that we all have to take articling students?

We are the gateway to the call to the bar. Unless we do away with articling and the mentorship, camaraderie, and educational opportunities it offers, we must rise to the occasion by taking students more often and in greater numbers.

When a student has a real criminal articling experience, the bar, the bench, and the public benefit. The knowledge of one generation passes to the next. In Hebrew, there is an expression for this: l’dor vador. It refers to both the responsibility and the legacy of one generation to the succeeding one.
What do I mean by a real

criminal articling experience? Well, sitting in remand court, going out to the jail, doing emergency research, watching trials, going to conferences, and participating in client meetings are all part of it.

It means soaking up what we do; learning to avoid ethical problems from someone who has encountered them before; and avoiding the serious mistakes that befall young calls to the bar who didn’t have criminal articles and who, as we are allowed to do, simply began practising.

I remember some wonderful experiences from when I was articling and doing my clerkship. It’s exhilarating after law school to be able to do real legal work and to have someone to discuss it with.

If we fail to take students and pass on what we know, the reputation of the bar will suffer. But we lose something individually and collectively as well. Whatever you make of yourself as a barrister, whether you were an academic, a socially conscious lawyer or a prodigious practitioner liked by your clients, all of that is ephemeral. It’s as if you left without an heir.

So, if you are a sole practitioner, maybe, despite all the grim economic news, it is time to take an articling student. And if you are at a small firm and you already have a student, maybe your firm can take a second student. Taking a student is a double mitzvah: you help the student and you help the bar. Hey, the student might even help you.

Rosalind Conway is a certified specialist in criminal litigation. She can be reached at [email protected].

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