Does articling need an overhaul?

By Carol Neshevich Students 2012

Ontario is struggling with a serious shortage of articling positions. Much of the country faces an imbalance between urban and rural articling spots. Does the system need to change?

Does articling need an overhaul? Photo of Laurie Pawlitza by Paul Eekhoff

To become a practising lawyer in Canada, it’s essential to complete the articling process. But what if you simply can’t secure a position, despite top-notch grades, a terrific résumé and an enthusiastic attitude? For an increasing number of Canadian law school grads, particularly in Ontario, this is becoming a reality.

The number of unplaced candidates in Ontario has shot up over the past few years. In March 2008, 5.8 per cent of the licensing group was unplaced. By March 2011, that percentage had skyrocketed to 12.1 per cent. Part of the problem is that enrollment at Ontario’s six law schools rose by a combined total of 15.5 per cent between 2001 and 2011, but the number of articling positions at law firms has re­mained largely static.

The shortage of Ontario articling positions has become such a problem that the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) established a task force to explore possible solutions. It issued its first report in December 2011, followed by a final report and a period of further exploration and fine-tuning of ideas. At press time, the task force was considering a wide range of possible options — from keeping the articling system as it is, to completely getting rid of articling and replacing it with a practical legal training course (PLTC), as well as a number of solutions that fall somewhere between those two extremes.

“People’s views on this are very disparate,” says LSUC Treasurer Laurie Pawlitza, when describing the type of input the task force has heard from lawyers and law schools across the province. “There are strongly held views from people who would like to keep articling largely as it is, and equally strongly held views that there could be better ways to accomplish transitional training.”

Omar Ha-Redeye, who articled in 2010-11 and now owns his own small full-service firm in Toronto called Fleet Street Law, thinks the system needs a major overhaul. In terms of the shortage, he believes law schools have an obligation to limit the number of students they accept. But he also suggests that the articling system seems biased against certain minority groups. Consider these statistics from LSUC: As of June 2011, 90 per cent of all 2010 licensing process candidates had secured an articling placement. But in terms of the 26.6 per cent of all 2010 candidates who identified themselves as being from an equity-seeking group (aboriginal, persons with a disability, francophone, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered, or racialized community), only 86 per cent of those candidates had secured a placement by June.

Law firms often hire those who are “a good fit” with the firm’s culture, says Ha-Redeye, and someone from a minority group sometimes isn’t viewed as fitting the mould. This means it’s the students who have to change to fit in, he says: “It’s not the workplace changing to accommodate the different populations of Canada.” There’s also the issue of social connections that can help a student get an “in” into a firm. “Career services urge you to tap your social contacts,” says Ha-Redeye, but members of racialized communities frequently don’t have as many connections to tap. “If your parents are judges, it’s an entirely different situation than if your parents are immigrants and worked as labourers,” he explains.

There is another imbalance created by the fact that most articling placements are with large, urban firms, as opposed to smaller firms and firms in small towns. As LSUC’s statistics reveal, 71 per cent of all Ontario articling placements are in medium- to large-sized firms, with 65 per cent being located in metropolitan Toronto. But there’s still a great need for lawyers in smaller towns. And indeed blaming the law schools for graduating too many students overlooks this reality. But people tend to want to article in large urban areas.

"“There are strongly held views from people who would like to keep articling largely as it is, and equally strongly held views that there could be better ways to accomplish transitional training.”" Laurie Pawlitza (opposite) Treasurer, Law Society of Upper Canada

Steve Raby, president of the Law Society of Alberta, says his province has similar problems with respect to urban versus rural practices. And a number of other provinces, especially in the West, are currently struggling with the same issues. “The one issue that Ontario is facing that seems to be prevalent across the country is the number of lawyers in rural areas is declining,” says Raby. “The average age of the rural practitioner is significantly higher than it used to be. [Those practitioners are] clamouring to find people to take over their practices when they retire, yet for whatever reason, they don’t seem to want to — or be able to — take on articling students.”

Indeed, despite the need for young new lawyers in small towns across the country, many of those small-town firms simply aren’t offering articling positions. Whether it’s be­cause they can’t afford the salaries, or they just don’t have the general resources to take on an articling student — in terms of time, office space, equipment or even available workload — many aren’t willing and/or able to provide transitional training. A few years ago, for instance, the LSUC made a concerted effort to convince firms in smaller towns to offer articling positions, but their efforts were largely in vain. At the same time, students tend to prefer articling at large firms in urban centres because they believe it will improve their employment opportunities. Also, countless graduates have huge student loans to repay, and large firms tend to offer higher salaries.

Although many regions face the urban/rural issue, it seems the rest of the country doesn’t have the serious overall shortage problem that Ontario does. “We’re not really getting any reports of the same kind of shortages outside of Ontario that are occurring inside of Ontario,” says John Hunter, Vancouver-based president of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. For example, in Alberta only about 2 to 3 per cent of grads each year fail to find articling positions. Meanwhile, in B.C., the University of British Columbia reported that 97 per cent were able to secure articling positions this year, while the University of Victoria’s law school reported that about 5 per cent were unable to find a position.

Still, “despite the fact that we don’t have a problem with respect to placing students like Ontario has, we can’t ignore this problem,” says Alberta’s Raby. “Given the national mobility that’s in place (the ability, granted by the National Mobility Agreement, for lawyers to practise in other Canadian provinces or territories), the fact that it affects Ontario means it’s everyone’s problem. If they conclude that they need to do something dramatic with their program, and it does make their program significantly different from the rest of the country, then that’s just not something tenable long term.”

The Federation’s Hunter agrees. “Everyone is following the situation in Ontario with interest,” he says. “I think there’s a desire to work with Ontario to try to make sure they get their problem solved, but hopefully in a way that will be consistent with the admissions procedures in the rest of the country.”

Carol Neshevich is freelance writer based in Toronto
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