‘Freight train’ of law grads on horizon

The Law Society of Upper Canada’s Convocation has granted a task force permission to investigate changes to the way Ontario lawyers are licensed and admitted to the bar - and abolishment of articles is on the table.

An amended version of a Jan. 24 motion from LSUC’s licensing and accreditation task force was approved following a lively discussion from benchers, after the release of a report expressing concern that the province’s firms will soon be unable to accommodate hundreds of lawyers seeking articling placements.

The combined pressure of increased intake at Ontario law schools, an influx of foreign-trained lawyers, and the prospect of up to three new law schools in the province could leave many students with nowhere to go following their third year of law school.

“This is a freight train coming down the track and we have to be thoughtful, creative, and mindful of the size of this train,” task force member and Bencher Laurie Pawlitza told Convocation. Pawlitza noted the task force’s findings that the current demand for approximately 1,300 articling spots is estimated to rise to 1,730  by 2009 - a 30 per cent increase.

“I urge Convocation to think about the difference between being unable now to place about 50 students, and being unable to place about 300 students, 400 students,” she said.

The task force’s original report offered the following options for solving the articling problem, to be considered during a consultation process that would receive written submissions until April 3:    
•    Students would receive no guarantee of articling placement upon entry to law school.
•    Following three years of law school, students would complete articling, combined with a practical legal training course.
•    Articles would be abolished.
But several benchers wanted the consultation process to be less focused, and Convocation passed a revised motion adding a fourth option stating the task force will “consider any other options and alternatives in the event of abolition” of the articling program. The date for acceptance of written submissions was moved to May 31.

Task force chair Vern Krishna, who presented the report to Convocation, noted the law society is currently admitting about 1,460 students to the bar. In 1999, Ontario received about 225 foreign-trained graduates. That number increased to 562 by 2007.

“We expect that number to go up to 750 quite rapidly, as foreign law schools have made it a good business to educate Canadians in law,” said Krishna, who will travel to Bond University in Australia next January to teach an international tax treaties course. That university accepts 70 Canadian law students each year and offers a Canadian constitutional law course, he said.

Krishna said the task force will seek answers to what the law society’s skills program for law graduates should achieve, and whether the current program is accomplishing that. The current program lasts about 60 hours, and “there are 1,400 students evaluated with very limited feedback,” he said.

He noted that law students at the University of Western Ontario and Windsor spend 30 hours and 54 hours respectively in ethics-based classes, while the law society program spends six and a half hours the topic.
“So, for the most part, there seems to be a fair amount of coverage in the law schools, in respect of skills programs,” said Krishna.

The report states that, in 2007, about 1,476 candidates applied to the licensing process. The report estimates an annual four per cent increase from that level.
Most of these students are concentrated in Toronto and Ottawa, with 71 per cent in the Greater Toronto Area alone.

“That is an issue for us, so we have to take a fresh look at this articling program,” said Krishna. “We have now got to the stage where we have to take a completely fresh look at this entire program and ask all of the questions and delve into all of the options and solutions.”

Bencher Heather Ross took issue with the report, suggesting that Convocation made a “promise”, in altering the bar admission course a few years ago, “that the law society would dedicate much faster resources, financial, human, and otherwise, to an improved and more meaningful articling program . . . I don’t see that that promise has been kept. What I feel I’m being asked to do is close a barn door after the horse got out,” the Goderich bencher said.

Ross said articling students are one of the few ways to attract new lawyers to rural areas, where a graying of the bar is leaving many communities without legal resources.

“I think for small firms and sole practitioners and those who are losing lawyers at a critical time, this is an area of untapped information and education. And cutting out articling, in my view, is not the answer,” said Ross.

Toronto Bencher Avvy Go suggested a solution to the articling problem could come from Ontario’s 80 legal clinics, which currently receive few articling students because they are ineligible to apply for law foundation funds.

“So the reality is that there are public-interest organizations out there who would be very interested in getting articling students,” she said. “That would help absorb some of the articling students who are not getting positions, particularly those who are interested in litigation, and particularly those from many of the
diverse communities.”

Ex-officio Bencher James Wardlaw noted that two previous law society reports considered abolishment of articles, and the profession rejected both.

“The simple and the seminal question for Convocation on this issue is, do we really want to spend the money on this consultation when we almost know in advance what the answer is going to be?” asked Wardlaw.

“Each generation has to visit these matters and sometimes more than once,” responded Krishna. “The demographics of the legal professions are not the same . . . The influx of lawyers and the emigration and reimportation of lawyers; the legal scene was entirely different.

We are playing on a different playground and we have to at least ask the question first as to whether the matter should be considered before we answer the question.”

Pawlitza urged benchers to move quickly on the issue.

“It is important that we move expeditiously and let the profession know what is possible - what is potentially going to happen in terms of number, so that they can then begin to think about it,” she said. “It’s time.”

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