Questions still surround law articling changes

January 24, 2013

By Adela Talbot, Western News

Law students, take note: Beneficial, yet potentially costly changes are on your professional horizon.

Responding to a significant lack of articling positions for Ontario’s law graduates, the Law Society of Upper Canada has given the green light to an alternative route of getting licensed as a lawyer in the province.

Articling, serving as an apprentice in a professional firm, is one requirement for law graduates to be licensed. There are not enough articling spots, so the Law Society has created a two-stream method of qualifying. Roughly 15 per cent of grads applying for articling positions in Ontario last year were unsuccessful, a figure that went up 3 per cent in 2011.

After much research and public consultation, the legal profession’s governing body proposed, last November, implementing a new law practice program (LPP) that will, alongside traditional 10-month articling positions, allow graduates to get their license by having them complete a hands-on program and a four-month co-op placement after graduation.

Slotted for the fall of 2014, the LPP could consist of additional course work – the nature of which is yet to be determined – followed by likely unpaid, apprentice-type work under the supervision of a lawyer, said Iain Scott, Western’s Faculty of Law dean.

The Law Society is accepting proposals and waiting to see who will be willing to offer this new program, Scott said. He noted it is likely to be a for-profit entity, the result of which will be roughly 6,000 graduates paying more for coursework after graduation, and graduates who will then have to take an unpaid, four-month, co-op placement in a city like Toronto – where living expenses are high.

“If that’s the way this unfolds, it really has no impact on law schools,” Scott said.

“One of the issues I see coming to the fore is we haven’t yet seen from the Law Society what it is they think the content of the LPP will be. What’s the missing piece (graduates) don’t get in law school that they need to get in these four months?”

Taking a guess, he said it is likely the emphasis will be on more practical skills, such as working with clients, managing trust accounts and reporting obligations.

“The law schools, I think, and law students, will look at this and say, schools may be able to provide this. In our clinic program, our students already open files in our legal aid clinic, deal with clients, and write letters during their three years,” Scott said.

“We don’t know how much of an overlap there will be – if we as a group of law schools look at this and we think we could deliver 30 per cent of that additional content, we could reduce the length of time and the cost (of the LPP) for students.”

He added the Law Society is working hard to develop the content of the LPP and to determine who can deliver the program. Law schools could know, as early as next month, answers to some of these questions.

“Law schools and law deans have agreed to reconvene and talk about whether there’s something we can do for students at Law schools. If there are things we can do easily that won’t detract from the quality of existing programs, why wouldn’t we?”

For now, Western’s Faculty of Law is looking at ways it can provide its students with more hands-on experience, he added.

Blake Pronk, president of the Student Legal Society at Western, said the students’ reaction to the LPP has not been uniform.

“A large group of (first- and second-year students) share a mixed sentiment of disappointment, frustration and apprehension; asking themselves, ‘Why me? Why am I the guinea pig?’ A central concern shared by these students is that the LPP inevitably creates two classes of licensing candidates; those who are paid to article with a firm or government agency for 10 months and those who take a four-month course and a four-month co-op placement without guaranteed payment,” he said, adding those who take an LPP fear they may be viewed as second tier candidates for jobs.

“Another group of students feels that this project is for the better; while not perfect, it is a step toward solving the access to justice issue that is a genuine concern in Ontario. Given the choice between not finding an articling job, (thus not being called to the bar), and the LPP, these students support the implementation of an alternative stream to becoming licensed and eligible to practice law in Ontario.”

The LPP is set to run as a five-year pilot program. The Law Society has estimated the cost of the program would be an additional $5,600 per student, some of which would be offset by an increase to Law Society member fees.