With one law firm offering an unpaid articling job that covers the student’s transit pass, Ontario law students are growing increasingly concerned about an apparent trend toward unpaid positions, the head of a student group says.
“Anecdotally, we have seen the number of unpaid articling positions on the rise,” says Ryan Robski, president of the Law Students’ Society of Ontario.
Statistics are hard to come by, he notes, because the Law Society of Upper Canada doesn’t require firms to report whether or not they’re offering paid articling positions. Because the career development offices at law schools refuse to post unpaid positions, the problem may also be more widespread than many students realize, he adds.
The Durham Community Legal Clinic attracted some controversy in late 2014 after advertising for an unpaid articling position. More recently, an ad for an articling position in Toronto posted on the Law Job Exchange Group web site last week noted the unpaid job would cover the cost of the student’s transit pass.
Many students suspect employers are simply trying to take advantage of their desperation to get their licences, says Robski.
“Articling is the final hurdle. Employers know that graduates are anxious to get licensed and that when faced with the choice of unpaid articles and the uncertainty of the [Law Practice Program], some students may be forced to work for free.”
Government and private loans enter repayment soon after students graduate, he says. In addition, licensing candidates pay fees to the law society that have nearly doubled in the last few years.
Renatta Austin, a sole practitioner who ran in the law society recent bencher elections partly on a platform to place student issues higher on the agenda, says Ontario and Canada generally have a “huge problem” with respect to unpaid student work. When running for bencher and talking to students, she says, she got the impression that expecting students to article for free was becoming more and more common.
“When I was going out and talking to people, this was one of the issues that was raised quite a lot,” she says.
Austin blames the problem on current laws and regulations.
“If you have rules that permit this type of predatory behaviour, you’re going to get it,” she says. The province needs to reform the Employment Standards Act to include articling students and the law society needs to create rules specifying that firms must compensate articling students if they’re profiting from them, according to Austin.
Austin says she found the recent ad “particularly upsetting” because of its “bold and upfront” statement about not paying the student. Even assuming a 40-hour work week, she says, reimbursing the cost of a transit pass in Toronto every month would work out to less than 90 cents per hour.
“I just really struggle to understand how a firm that is presumably billing work for an articling student’s time is not able to offer them anything other than a Metropass,” she says.
“It might be legal, but, in my opinion, it’s unethical.”
But Shelley Levine, founding partner at the firm offering the unpaid position, Levine Associates, says economics don’t allow the firm to pay articling students. The firm deals mostly with refugee work with many of its services paid through legal aid, he says.
“When you run that kind of a practice, you simply don’t have the luxury of the economics working for you that would allow you to hire students,” he says.
“We simply continue not to have the financial means to hire students.”
The firm first began to take on articling students on an unpaid basis four or five years ago, he says, in response to requests from the students themselves.
“We were getting unsolicited applications from students who had been unable to find paid positions, and often they were coming to us after they had been unable to find articles for a few months after they should have begun,” he says.
“Initially, I was a little bit reluctant to get involved but I was certainly persuaded by a few of the people that I spoke with . . . that it would be mutually beneficial, that they were in a hard spot,” he adds.
About two years ago, the firm decided to advertise unpaid positions and has done so about three or four times, he notes.
Levine says he also has the impression unpaid articling positions are becoming increasingly common in Ontario. Either law schools are creating too many graduates or firms are less willing to take on articling students, leading to a situation where there are more people on the market than it can support, he says. Whatever the cause, the scarcity of paid positions in Ontario is a problem that the profession needs to address, he suggests.
Levine strongly suspects his own firm differs from many others in that it clearly states up front in its ad that it’s offering an unpaid position. In many situations, he says, students probably find out only at the interview stage that they’d be working for free.
Since compensation for articling is a matter between the firm and the candidate, the law society doesn’t keep statistics on paid or unpaid positions, says LSUC spokeswoman Denise McCourtie. But according to McCourtie, “the vast majority of articling placements are paid and the law society strongly encourages firms to pay candidates.
“The law society’s primary objective is to establish high-quality positions that provide appropriate training for candidates.”
The law society does, however, track the percentage of paid placements in the Law Practice Program, a number that’s about 70 per cent, says McCourtie.
For more, see "Clinic's unpaid articling job creates a stir."