Speaker's Corner: The roots of the articling crisis

Since the Great Recession of 2007-2009, there has been a lot of media commentary blaming the sometimes-bleak economic prospects of young lawyers on law schools. In this coverage, you’ll also hear complaints about the lack of utility of a law degree, the high tuition for the law school and the debt it creates, as well as the competitiveness of the job market for lawyers upon graduation.

Having graduated from law school in 2008 and gone through the process myself, I have followed this coverage with interest. However, I believe the problems that young lawyers face has its root cause in the unnecessary need for people to obtain a four-year undergraduate degree before being admitted to law school. A four-year degree is a practical requirement for the vast majority of law students, though not officially a requirement for all law schools in Canada.

Obtaining an undergraduate degree delays a person’s entry to a competitive job market, with the only reward being a degree that is utterly useless to the practice of law, in my contention. By the time a young lawyer is able to enter the job market, following law school, it is at a time when the consequences of a competitive job market cannot be borne socially or financially.

Having chosen to go to law school and become a criminal lawyer, I could not have possibly conceived of how useless my undergraduate degree would end up being in terms of my ability to generate an income or practise law. People I speak to about this present a variety of reasons that these degrees are useful — but I respectfully disagree.

For example, people will often argue that an undergraduate degree teaches critical thinking. However, I didn’t attend the Platonic Academy or Oxford or Harvard. I actually learned critical thinking by reading authors such as Christopher Hitchens.

People will also argue that I became educated at university. However, I did not become “educated” in the traditional sense at university. The original intended concept of a B.A. was that, once a person finished a four-year degree, with the rigours attached, it was a symbol that the person was part of an elite educated class. The concept of becoming part of an educated class is very appealing — so appealing that university is no longer limited to an educated elite. There are non-rigorous entry requirements for the vast majority of programs and all kinds of creative ways to get a degree that did not exist at the time the idea became entrenched.

Another argument is that people who are 18 years old are not mature enough to go to law school. I concede this point, but this is not an argument to continue with the traditional four-year degree. If others continue to insist on some form of the B.A. requirement, why does it have to be four years?
Who preordained that a four-year B.A. is necessary in order to get into law school and why? 

There may be various excellent reasons to attend university and complete an undergraduate degree, but to prepare for law school and the practice of law is not one of them. The requirement must be reassessed in light of the drastically different financial and emotional strains on young lawyers today compared with a generation ago.

The abandonment of an undergraduate degree as a prerequisite for law school is a reasonable solution to the unemployment and underemployment crisis young lawyers face. It is not the escalating tuition or the lack of utility of a law degree to be blamed for this crisis — it is the fact that you are nearly 30 years old by the time you get rooted into your employment situation (or lack of it). Thirty-year-olds can no longer bear the possibility of unemployment or underemployment as lawyers, especially in an era when tuition at law school can be $30,000 per year, followed by a lack of articling positions and law jobs.

Upon graduation, young lawyers face the daunting and demoralizing proposition of paying off debt and delaying financial independence well beyond the situation of many of their peers. Meanwhile, those who have not attended law school have already purchased a home and have a young family or are established in jobs and careers. Such despair and frustration caused by the late entry into the job market truly has the potential to destroy a young lawyer’s confidence and become a life-altering event.
The problem of despair and frustration could be nearly completely solved by removing the useless four-year degree requirement — or cutting it down to one or two years. 

The four-year B.A. requirement is an unnecessary impediment for young lawyers to establish themselves, given the economic reality facing Millennials today. For law students and young lawyers to survive the articling crisis and the current competitive job situation, the undeservedly vaunted and anachronistic concept of the four-year B.A. must yield to reality.

Ryan Handlarski is a criminal lawyer practicing in Toronto and surrounding areas since 2009. He can be reached at ryan@rhcriminaldefence.com or 416-837-4500.

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