Although it’s a new year and I should be focussed on new things, I’m stuck grappling with the same issue that’s bothered me for years. What to do about articling.
The initial catalyst was The Globe and Mail’s piece “‘Speed dating’ for success on Bay St.'” The article paints a pretty absurd picture of on-campus interviews or OCIs, the initial step used by Bay St. firms and a few others to select students for summer jobs – highly-coveted in no small part because they generally lead to articling jobs. The article talks of students warming their hands before interviews so they don’t annoy interviewers with cold handshakes and carrying cheat sheets listing “interesting” personal anecdotes. Unbelievably, one law student apparently had 20 back-to-back interviews packed into one day. It seems that the only way to make OCIs more hardcore would be to have a circuit with law students forced to do as many push-ups and sit-ups as possible between interviews.
But for law students, OCIs are serious business. The reality is that there aren’t enough articling positions to go around in Ontario (discussed in yesterday’s post) and, according to the LSUC’s Licensing and Accreditation Consultation Report, the majority of articling positions are with large firms in Toronto or Ottawa (60% with firms with 11 or more lawyers and 71% located in the Greater Toronto area). Add to the mix all the attention paid to OCIs by law schools, the Law Society, and participating firms, for many students, getting a job through OCIs seems like the golden ticket to success. Unfortunately, students who don’t make the cut or who don’t want to practice in a big firm environment can be left very demoralized and worried about whether they’ll find an articling position (or face the prospect of never being called to the bar).
Which brings me to my overarching concern. There appears to be a worrying disconnect between what we hope for the future of the profession and the way we’re going about trying to achieve our goals through our licensing process.
There’s a lot of handwringing about the greying of the bar and how we can ensure that the public can find affordable representation, particularly in smaller communities. Emphasis is placed on the need for equity and diversity in the profession. Concerns are expressed about about how to keep the legal aid system afloat. These aren’t simply issues that affect lawyers. They also affect the public’s ability to access the justice system and its confidence in the ability of the legal profession to regulate itself.
While there’s no quick fix to any of these issues, clearly one of the most significant tools that the Law Society has in its tool box is the licensing process to become a lawyer. The path that law graduates end up taking will play a large part in either exacerbating these issues or working to solve them.
But instead of thinking creatively about how to prepare the new generation of law grads in a manner that helps address these challenges, we continue to promote a system that ends up funnelling the bulk of law graduates to large firms in major centres. We fail to provide sufficient oversight to ensure the quality of the articling experience. We tolerate a system that is not merit-based and leaves a significant number of candidates for articles without positions, with a disproportionate number of them aboriginal, francophone, racialized, and foreign trained. We also fail to ensure that students that are committed to working in the public interest can actually find articling positions that will enable them to do so. (This isn’t my assessment, it’s laid out in the Consultation Report).
I’m certainly not trying to diminish the efforts that have been spent by the Law Society, law associations, law schools and others on these issues. The Law Society held consultations in 2008 on the question of what to do with articling (although ultimately decided not to make any major changes). Most law schools now have public interest career fairs and very able, if over-worked, career counsellors promoting public interest careers. The Law Foundation has established public interest articling fellowships and law schools as well as organizations like Canadian Lawyers Abroad and the Canadian Bar Association offer opportunities for students and new graduates to gain experience with public interest organizations in Canada and abroad. And in November, the Law Society, the Ontario Bar Association and the County and District Law Presidents’ Association held a symposium designed to connect law students, articling candidates, and new lawyers with practitioners from sole and small firms located in smaller communities. But unfortunately, these are all band-aid solutions that won’t fix the underlying problems associated with the articling requirement.
The reality is that something’s gotta give. In the past, I’ve taken the position that inevitably we’ll need to get rid of the articling requirement (see here in The Lawyers Weekly). Although I may have been in a minority group at the time (at least willing to take this stance publicly), others sharing this view included the dean of an Ontario law school and a senior partner at a Bay St. firm. But, I’m now coming around to the view expressed recently by Lorne Sossin, Dean of Osgoode Hall, in a very thoughtful blog post that we could supplement articling with an innovative practical legal training course.
If designed properly (which would likely need to include financial incentives), this course could be seen as more attractive for some law graduates rather than a second-rate option for students who can’t find articles (one of my concerns). It could provide very specific training for graduates who were looking to work at a small firm or to go out on their own (for example, on the business and pressures of running a practice) and then help connect them with smaller communities in need of a new generation of lawyers. It could prepare lawyers who are interested in in public interest work and help place them. It could provide a more flexible experience for graduates who have family obligations that might prevent them from working crazy articling hours. It might provide a more compressed training program which would be more attractive to some. A practical training course could, in fact, do a better job in meeting the goals of the articling program (see below) and in addressing some of the challenges faced by the profession.
At the end of the day, I just hope that we have the courage and imagination to do something. Otherwise we’re not just letting down the new generation of law grads, we’re letting the public down.
The goals of articling as identified in the Consultation Report:
a. To provide law school graduates with exposure to certain defined practice skills in a professional environment in a consistent manner across articling positions.
b. To provide law school graduates with exposure to professional responsibility and ethical issues in a professional environment, in a consistent manner across positions.
c. To provide law school graduates with the opportunity to evaluate practice environments for the purposes of subsequent professional life.
d. To fill law school gaps in law students’ development as professionals.
e. To facilitate the transition to sole or small firm practice.