Law students face shortage of articling positions

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One hundred thirty-seven -- yes, that's right: 137. And last year, 150! 

These are the number of applicants we received for one articling position for the period July 2019 to May 2010. For readers not in law in Ontario, articling is a 10-month work placement under the supervision of a lawyer. Completing articles is a condition to practising law in Ontario. 

The competition for securing articles is so intense that the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) has explored alternatives and is flirting with the idea of giving up on articling altogether.  

Bad idea. We don't want to lose an important training ground for progressive lawyers. Our law firm, Iler Campbell LLP, is unusual as a place where young lawyers can gain experience working for non‑profits, charities, co‑ops, social enterprise and the like. We see hiring articling students as an obligation to the legal profession and to the progressive organizations that we serve. Our tagline is "A law firm for those who want to make the world a little bit better." Articling here and in other like‑minded firms helps build a cadre of advocates for that better world.

So why are articling positions so hard to come by?

Too many people go to law school. 

Every September approximately 2,600 new students begin the first of three years at Canada's law schools, as reported by Oxford Seminars, a law school admission test outfit. The LSO's report on the licensing process says that the number of graduates from Ontario law programs increased by 60 per cent between 2007 and 2012. (The same report discusses the influx of internationally trained applicants for licensing. Over the last five years, the number in that camp has increased by 30 per cent.) Looks like this may increase -- Ryerson University in Toronto is well down the track to getting the green light to open its own law school. The proposed school will reportedly focus on issues like equity, diversity and inclusion, access to justice, Indigenous law, and technology. This is all great, but couldn't other schools shift their thinking to address these very important issues -- why do we need another law school?

The LSO says that in November, 2015, the most recent stats on their FAQs, there were nearly 50,000 licensed lawyers in Ontario with about half of them in private practice.

Maybe we've hit the saturation point. Maybe there simply aren't enough jobs to support that many new lawyers entering the profession each year. 

But for universities, law school is big business. Universities use law schools (and other professional schools) as cash cows because they are not otherwise well funded: close to $150 million is spent on law school tuition annually. (Assuming of course that most people who start law school finish, an assumption that in my experience more or less holds true.)

Students are all angling for the same well‑paying jobs because the cost of pursuing legal education is too high.

Law school is still seen as, and in many ways is, an exclusive club for children of well‑off Canadians, and the law schools know it. 

Annual Ontario law school tuitions range widely from a high of over $36,000  at the University of Toronto to a more modest but still hefty $18,500 at the University of Windsor, as reported by Oxford Seminars. Students who attend school in other provinces fare better -- at McGill tuition for Quebec students is under $5,000 annually. Although it will purportedly have a more social justice bent, the proposed Ryerson school's tuition will nonetheless come in at $20,000 a year. While we know that schools offer needs‑based bursaries -- and indeed at U of T, the only financial aid offered by the law school is needs‑based -- we are also told by a former U of T student who was a recipient of their financial aid that the uptake on those U of T funds is small. Some students are able to rely on family connections to get jobs, and for some, working at a paying job might even be optional. 

Students of more modest means leave law school with huge debt, forcing them to look for jobs that pay handsomely. The best-paid jobs are the ones on Bay Street in Toronto and the equivalent financial districts in other cities, also the locations where the cost of living is highest. Students compete mightily for positions at those firms which, you guessed it, are not generally motivated to make the world a little bit better.

Not enough law firms offer articling positions.

In its recent survey, the LSO found that only 10 per cent of Ontario law firms provide articling positions. Why? Well, let's face it -- it takes time, energy and the right temperament to train someone. Like in any other profession, some lawyers are simply not well‑suited to this task. Others have the skills but time is money and they prefer to spend their time billing clients. They know that at the end of each year, there is a group who've articled on Bay Street and haven't been hired back after their call to the bar. They are used to working sweatshop hours and are more than happy to scale back to 60 hours a week and accept a modest decrease in pay. Defeated by the Bay Street experience, many have had their sense of idealism and justice beaten out of them. Indeed there is no guarantee of long‑term employment just because you have an articling position. The plight of the "new call" looking for work is just as dire. 

Because of the shortage of articling positions, the LSO started its Law Practice Program (LPP) in 2014. Unlike articling -- traditionally paid employment, with some recent exceptions -- the students who end up in the LPP must pay for the privilege, thus increasing debt. Despite laudable efforts to pitch the LPP as a quality alternative to articling, indeed preferable since it offers a consistent curriculum, I know that I cannot shake the feeling that a person who has come through the LPP is somehow less desirable than someone who articled -- if they couldn't get an articling job, there must be something wrong with them, right?     

This all leads to a situation where prospective articling students apply to as many firms as possible. Of the 137 applicants we received this year, nearly 100 appeared to have no more than an acquaintance with our firm name. For those, neither letter nor resume showed any connection to the work we do or the work of our clients. The applications were form letters with the firm name changed (or in a few cases, not changed, leading to instant elimination).

So should we do away with articling?

No. It's an important training ground for young lawyers, and for us, an opportunity to introduce people to the wonderful world of progressive law. A chance, too, for us as an employer to test drive an employee for 10 months; give our clients quality, supervised work at lower cost, and have great satisfaction in knowing that even if we didn't hire back, we have contributed to someone's early start in law. 

If hundreds of prospective plumbers couldn't find apprenticeships each year, would you argue for getting rid of them?

So from August 13 to 15, you will find me and my colleagues enthusiastically interviewing 12 candidates chosen from the 137 applicants. Somewhere in their midst, I'm sure we'll find the perfect choice for the 2019‑2020 articling period: highly committed to social justice, well‑spoken, practical, and smart with razor-sharp wit. Good luck to candidates everywhere! 

Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.

Pro Bono provides legal information designed to educate and entertain readers. But legal information is not the same as legal advice -- the application of law to an individual's specific circumstances. While efforts are made to ensure the legal information provided through these columns is useful, we strongly recommend you consult a lawyer for assistance with your particular situation to obtain accurate advice.

Submit requests for future Pro Bono topics to [email protected]. Read past Pro Bono columns here.

Photo: jennyrotten/Flickr

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