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A Criminal Mind: Finding those articles

In mid-July, the Ontario government doubled the legal aid rate for articling students from $23 to $46 an hour, but the effects won’t be felt for years.

This rate hike seemed like incredibly important news, but hiring was pretty much over for this fall, and, in Ottawa by mid-June, interviews had already taken place for next year. I asked some senior lawyers with criminal practices if this rate increase would encourage them to hire students.

They all unequivocally said “No.” The limited hours authorized by certificates left them with no room left to bill out any work done by students. But that does not mean there are not jobs out there.

It is true that criminal articles have become hard to come by in Ottawa: there are only four or five positions a year with the firms, even though the bar consists of about 120 defence lawyers. The Crown attorney’s office in Ottawa takes two students, and the federal public prosecution service offers four students a 10-week criminal rotation. Most of the students who are working with lawyers here are undergraduates from the co-op program at Carleton University’s department of criminology.

So how do you find a firm that is willing to take a criminal articling student? Only one Ottawa firm that restricts its practice to criminal law actively advertises and recruits in the law schools. They take one student. The handful of other lawyers taking students eschews advertising. Not advertising avoids the time-draining vetting of resumes, followed by long hours of interviewing, and divining whether the student is a criminal law keener or simply someone desperate for articles.

But without articles, there is no call to the bar. The Law Society of Upper Canada’s web site shows that, by June of each year, there are still Ontario students who have not found articles. The number has been going down, but it continues to be significant: by August of 2006, there were 55 unplaced students (4.3 per cent of the 1267 people in the Bar Admission Course).

Some students were no longer seeking articles, but were presumably hoping to re-apply in the following year. Presently, the LSUC web site lists vacancies for this fall and next at only 11 firms and agencies.

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, The Tipping Point, describes how most people find jobs: it isn’t through ads, and it isn’t through nepotism. It is through their acquaintances. Gladwell was referring to sociologist Mark Granovetter’s 1974 study, Getting a Job, in which Granovetter coined the phrase “the strength of weak ties.”

Gladwell points out that our friends often have the same friends, so they are not a good source of contacts when we are job-seeking, but our acquaintances move in different circles: “The more acquaintances you have, the more powerful you are.”

When employers are not advertising, and most of them are not, then employees have to come looking. The most effective way to look is to arrange some sort of introduction, and then follow up by e-mail or fax with your job application, which should include a personalized letter, transcripts, and references, along with the resume.

Be positive and always follow up with an e-mailed “Thank you,” because even though that lawyer may not offer you a position, he may recommend you to someone else. Sometimes articles may be created by a “kindred spirit” (thank you, Anne), but sometimes they merely have to be located, because small firms don’t have the time to look for suitable employees. 

What, after all, is an employer looking for? He or she is hoping to hear that this prospective employee is a good guy (girls can be guys), that he doesn’t have three heads, that he will fit in, and that he can add something to the office. Essentially, a referral from an acquaintance is like character evidence: the articling student’s general reputation in the community is worth a lot.

Practising lawyers are the gatekeepers for the profession. Most of us appreciate that with this privilege comes responsibility. There are articles out there, but you will have to work to find them. The old-fashioned word for this is networking; let your acquaintances know you are looking for articles, and you are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

Rosalind Conway practises criminal law in Ottawa. She can be reached at

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