The Law Practice Program (LPP) is about to change the way lawyers are licensed in Ontario.
The LPP is the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC)’s solution to “the articling crisis.” It’s meant to provide an alternative to law graduates unable to secure the 10-month lawyer-in-training jobs they need to become licensed in Ontario.
The gist of the LPP is that instead of 10 months of mandatory paid work at a law firm, the LPP requires only four months of paid or unpaid work experience and four months of coursework.
Starting in the 2014-2015 licensing year, the LPP pilot is due to fly alongside the articling process for three to five years. Some groups, including the student body of York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, predict the LPP will crash and burn.
It’s up to the law society to choose the victor, but I think the LSUC will look to employers for guidance. I think even the most conservative firms—large and small—will see through the smoke and recognize the LPP as the better deal. Here’s why.
1. Lower costs
Training new graduates is expensive for law firms. Law school is an academic exercise, designed to train students to “think” like lawyers. Despite increasing efforts to expand clinical programs like Queen’s Business Law Clinic and Osgoode’s public service graduation requirement, most law grads are still arriving on their first day of work with few practical skills.
Traditionally private law practices (read: their clients) were expected to absorb the costs of training legal thinkers, because firms could afford to spend time turning them into profitable doers.
Ontario’s law society recommends shifting the costs of training onto law school graduates instead. That would mean all new lawyers will pay for the LPP—even those who choose to article during the pilot. For every new hire from an LPP program, a law firm will save at least six months of additional salary it would have paid for an articling student, and that LPP grad will come with four months of free training.
Larger firms can still compete for the best students with high salaries and promises of hire-backs. A four-month LPP with a top-tier firm will remain as prestigious as articling once was. The result will cost six months’ less salary for the firm.
In addition, the cost savings from a paid or unpaid four-month co-op benefits organizations who cannot afford articling students. The LPP may encourage a wider range of legal practitioners to hire new graduates who otherwise would not be able to.
2. Higher quality
Firms will save money from the LPP, but are we risking reduced quality of licensed lawyers?
Will the LPP imbue law grads with the skills equivalent to a well-trained articling student? It’s impossible to say.
What I do know is that more data to compare law graduate competence, and a greater selection, can only lead to higher quality recruits.
Right now top firms are forced to make an early bet on students based on exam grades and interviews. Waiting a year provides firms with a fuller transcript, and a slightly fuller resume, but still very little that’s predictive of performance.
What if law firms could predict a student’s performance based on the LPP? What if it was a fair comparison of each student’s written and oral advocacy skills, frankly evaluated by practitioners? The LPP could provide its graduates with a portfolio including a mock trial recording, client intake interview, cross examination, legal memo, factum, and more.
For law students, this would be terrifying. On the plus side it would hammer home the goal of law school as building value for future clients, not a place solely for textbook learning.
The LPP’s shorter four-month co-op work experience would also allow enterprising firms to select from a larger number of students. If the student salary budget was kept the same from articling, double the number of LPP students could be hired and tested out before extending a full-time offer.
3. Greater flexibility
Four-month co-op terms can be fit in anywhere. Summers after the first, second, or third year of law school, as a replacement for one of the unnecessary semesters in third year. Any law school can easily integrate the LPP coursework and co-op into its curriculum.
This provides an interesting opportunity for private firms, government, and legal departments. They can host law students for four months to “test drive” a student’s skills, train them, and build relationships that could result in full-time employment.
Second and third-year students could work four-month LPP co-ops from September to December, January to April, or May to August. If students are allowed transfer credits by studying in Spain, why not transfer credits for working and researching at a firm in Northern Ontario all winter.
It’s more flexible because students who are not a great fit do not have to stay for ten months. Departing after four months does not threaten the student’s chance at becoming licensed. If things do work out, the LPP can be extended by six months into an articling-length stay. The LPP puts the power is in the hands of the employer.
That’s the case for firms choosing the LPP: lower costs, higher quality, and greater flexibility.
What do you think – will employers choose the LPP over articling, or will it fall flat?
Ivan Merrow is a JD/MBA student at Queen's University.