Random Thoughts on Articling

If you took in the #articling discussions on twitter today, you’ll know that the debate has been postponed until November 22nd, and that the opinions on this issue are incredibly strong. Lawyers have obviously had a lot of time to reflect on the value of the articling process, what it provided them personally, and the value it provides to the profession. So intense were the discussions, that it trended in Canada on Twitter (in the number one position) for well over an hour.

I’d like to share a couple of random observations here, as a non-lawyer who has worked at firms in both Ontario and BC, and with Articling students directly in both provinces. I pass no judgement, as both possible directions seem to have their points of merit, and this will be no easy decision for Ontario lawyers.

  • First, I have seen some amazing in-house lawyer training programs – both for Articling Students and Associates. I can’t imagine those programs going away without formal Articling; but for a profession that is self-regulating, the loss of input into those programs by the law societies can’t be entirely positive.
  • ‘Articling’ is one of the best things that some firms do to give back to their profession; and a number of them do it very well. For every horror story out there, there are firms that invest hundreds of hours on their in-house curriculum. Good programs delivering varying work rotations, providing a wide range of experience; and more importantly, a chance to be supervised while producing work product — lawyers should never discount the value of that kind of one-on-one training.
  • Law schools graduating more candidates that the profession can train is simply wrong. This partnership is broken, and practicing lawyers have a right to be frustrated.
  • Having both Articling and the LPP may cause a two-tier system. But is Articling not already a two tiered system? As mentioned above, not all programs are built the same.
  • Articling is part of the young-lawyer job hunt ecosystem — Big firms recruit students and train them for a year. Hireback announcements all come out around at the same time; and smaller firms then make private inquiries about which people are available. Those students get called, move on to new positions; and if larger firms are smart, they keep in contact and make these students part of their alumni network. Killing articling entirely will have an impact on this ‘circle of life’.
  • Firms made an error in trying to compete on Articling student salaries. Remember when student salaries were capped? In BC, it was around $24K in the late 9o’s. Then the TO firms said they were losing students to NYC, and the BC firms were losing their best students to TO. And then boom! The economics of training salaries, and value they offered, was finished. I’m not saying the ‘caps’ weren’t set too low given the cost of law school, but as training costs escalated, the number of student positions became a budget cut target as the economy eroded. Articling lost its value proposition.
  • Law Firms benefit economically from Articling. Smart firms call it ‘the life blood’ of their firm. Growth happens in many different ways, and no disrespect to lateral hires (definitely part of the mix); but a firm culture built on training and mentorship is different than one built on acquisition. Many firms should question internally whether the removal of formal Articles will have an impact on their firm’s commitment to recruiting and training young lawyers.

Some of these assumptions may seem false or misguided. It’s only my personal experience. But trust me when I say that Articling in Canada has a lot to be positive about. Even proud. But it is broken, and kudos to the LSUC for trying to fix the issues at hand.

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Comments

  1. Two questions on this topic:

    * It was suggested to me by some out-of-Ontario lawyers that Ontario does not have a shortage of articling positions, it just has a shortage of articling positions in Toronto, which is where the overwhelming majority of students want to article. (Maybe that could be extended to a couple of other major cities, or those with law schools.) There are – it was alleged – lots of positions available in smaller communities. Is this right, or is the shortage really evenly distributed?

    * Bruce Feldthusen has a note in the latest Precedent magazine saying that there are about 500 foreign-trained law graduates, most from Ontario who have got a law degree abroad, in the competition for articling jobs this year (and by implication every year). This seems high to me, but I have no data. Is that right? If so, is the problem that Ontario’s law schools have too many students (I was also told that the U of Ottawa doubled the size of its common-law stream recently), or that we accept too readily foreign common-law applicants (who may be trying to beat the system or compensate for not making the cut at an Ontario/Canadian school) – or that C students just should not expect to get articles…?

  2. A few quick comments.

    Steve: The Star didn’t get it completely correct. The tabled motion, as amended, deferred the vote to November Convocation. The actual debate did start this month, and will carry on, possibly even into a special sitting of December Convocation. Practically speaking, this motion, which continued in excess of an hour, was probably unnecessary. It’s unlikely that the debate would have been concluded in the 4 hours allotted in the October Convocation.

    John: The refrain about positions outside of Toronto has been heard for years. There is no data or information to substantiate it. The reality is that very few small or solo law firms in rural communities can afford to take on an articling student. When they do take one on, they are sometimes expressly reluctant to take on equity-seeking groups who grew up or are from Toronto, because the assumption and experience is that they eventually return to the bigger cities where they have better social supports and integration into the community.

    The number of NCA students has risen dramatically, from 89 in 1998/99 to 709 in 2011/12 (para. 77 in the report). Most of these are Canadians who go abroad to get legal education, and then seek to return to practice. Notably, the other major component of NCA candidates are from Commonwealth nations like India, Pakistan and Nigeria. In both these cohorts there are valid concerns that the alternative PLTC stream will be perceived as a route of desperation for those whose qualifications were somehow inferior or substandard.

    But the NCA students don’t paint the full picture. There are additional candidates due to increased class sizes or new students from University of Ottawa, University of Windsor, and (forthcoming in 2015-2016) Lakehead University.

    It’s worth noting that the “C” students from the NCA cohort are typically not eligible for licensure, and that domestic “C” students who are not from non-equity seeking groups frequently get placements through personal connections and family members. The situation is far more complicated than that.