Law Graduates Still Struggling in Job Market

An editorial in today’s New York Times highlights the plights of law school graduates in the U.S.,

About 20 percent of law graduates from 2010 are working at jobs that do not require a law license, according to a new study, and only 40 percent are working in law firms, compared with 60 percent from the class a decade earlier. To pay the bills, the 2010 graduates have taken on a variety of jobs, some that do not require admission to the bar; others have struck out on their own with solo practices. Most of the graduates have substantial student debt.

Even as law school enrollment was peaking in 2010 — reaching 52,488, according to American Bar Association figures — those who were graduating were not receiving job offers from firms where they were interning. And offers to some students were rescinded.

One of the main reasons for this squeeze in the U.S. is the 2008 financial crisis, which culminated in enormous disruptions for the class of 2010. The study referenced here is by Deborah Jones Merritt, and is entitled, What Happened to the Class of 2010? Empirical Evidence of Structural Change in the Legal Profession.

Merritt finds that job opportunities for this cohort has improved only marginally in the past 5 years. The employment gaps also accentuate gender differences which already exist in legal employment, which helps illustrate how historically disadvantaged groups are almost always the first to suffer when the economy or a sector is placed under financial strain. Her conclusions emphasize the impact of the debt burden on these new lawyers as well,

Even after several years in the workforce, members of the Class of 2010 struggle to secure jobs that require bar admission. Law firm jobs are scarcer than in the past, and other employers have not made up the shortfall. Most positions fall within modest paying categories: solo practice, small firms, government work, and business jobs that do not require bar admission. These outcomes are challenging for students who borrowed heavily to finance their degrees; they are also discouraging for graduates who hoped to work as practicing lawyers but were not able to secure those positions.

Merritt sees these challenges as potential opportunities to restructure legal education, proposing a first year of legal study into an undergraduate liberal arts major, and retaining a two-year upper-level curriculum. Not all of these undergraduate students would go on to law school, helping foster greater education and awareness of our legal system and developing legal reasoning skills. The law school curriculum would then be able to focus more on the practical skills in the workplace.

Legal education is going through restructuring in Canada as well. Part of it is also because of the 2008 financial crisis, but it’s also largely because of changes in our legal education itself – growing class sizes, new law schools, and more international law students (many of whom are Canadian studying abroad). These law graduates have even greater challenges than their American counterparts.

The Globe and Mail recently focused on the new Law Practice Program implemented in Ontario, noting that it has not alleviated the shortages of articling positions. Janet Minor is quoted in the piece,

Those who supported [the LPP] believed that it was not fair for the market to determine who would get called to the bar. If doing so was entirely dependent on the availability of articling positions, then it would be.

I did not offer my unqualified support to the LPP program when moderating the debate on it during Convocation. But there are some Canadian law graduates from this class of 2010, my graduating year, who are now completing the LPP program 5 years after graduation. The legal market, as it is currently structured, would not have allowed them to become a lawyer at all.

The struggles of young lawyers for employment in the legal field, and in particular to pay down tuition debt, will exist regardless of the LPP program. The LPP program at least allows them to get their license so they have an opportunity to do so. It also gives them valuable skills to run or operate a practice, which they would never have learned in law school, and probably would never be exposed to even in an articling position.

The new slate of Benchers who are elected this week do not have to necessarily continue the LPP program as it is currently structured, but they do have to realize that we still have a crisis in our profession. In part, it is a crisis of articling positions. It is also a crisis of the relevance of legal education, the roles of licensed lawyers in society, and where we are going as a profession.

These LPP candidates are not yet licensees. They don’t have a vote. That means the rest of us are essentially voting for their futures on their behalf.

Choose wisely.


  1. Daniel Tucker-Simmons

    Hi Omar,

    I agree with your sentiments, but I think fundamentally, the LPP tries to solve the wrong problem, and it creates or exacerbates a whole slew of different ones.

    1) The LPP exacerbates excess supply.

    More and more young people (including myself, as I near the end of my articles) want to be lawyers because they want to maintain or improve upon the standard of living enjoyed by their baby-boomer parents, many of whom worked in well-paid manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs that are now virtually non-existent. Thus in order to avoid slipping down the socio-economic ladder into poorly paid, precarious positions in the service sector, those young people have been trying to jump up a rung or two by flooding professional schools, despite years of [widely publicized] poor employment prospects. And who can blame us? With income disparity only widening, it has becoming increasingly untenable to be middle-middle class; we either have to move up or down. I chose up.

    But this problem is only exacerbated by the LPP. If firms aren’t offering articles, it is because the market doesn’t justify it. Permitting more lawyers to practice doesn’t expand demand. It only increases supply.

    2) There isn’t sufficient demand, but lots of need. The real problem is access to justice.

    There isn’t sufficient demand, but there is great need. The problem is more that many of those with legal needs don’t have the means to pay for legal services such as they are currently offered. Even the middle-class has difficulty affording lawyers.

    But the problem isn’t with the middle class. The problem is with the profession, and it won’t be solved by the LPP. Indeed, it is patently unjust to expect that LPP graduates, themselves often in precarious financial positions, will solve this problem by offering affordable legal services that the remainder of the profession has been unwilling to provide until now.

    3) The LPP creates a gendered, racialized, discriminatory two-tiered system.

    The ranks of those young law-students who fail to get paid work articling will disproportionately be comprised of members of marginalized communities, while young hetero (or passing), able-bodied (or passing) white men (such as myself) will be disproportionately represented amongst articling students. Having articled, the latter will then be at a distinct advantage securing jobs with firms, thus perpetuating the racist, gendered, and discriminatory hiring practices that have plagued us for so long.

    Conclusion: Let’s broaden the LPP discussion to get at the root systemic problem, which is inequality and access to justice. And since I can’t yet vote in the LSUC election, I plead with those who can to bear this in mind. Chose wisely.


  2. “The ranks of those young law-students who fail to get paid work articling will disproportionately be comprised of members of marginalized communities, while young hetero (or passing), able-bodied (or passing) white men (such as myself) will be disproportionately represented amongst articling students.”

    I hear this statement made repeatedly about the LPP process (including by a number of Benchers/Benchers candidates). What is telling, though, is that it’s never a statement of fact, but rather a statement of belief (i.e., ” WILL disproportionately BE comprised of” rather than “IS disproportionately comprised of” (as an side, I think “composed of” is more appropriate than “comprised of” – sorry that’s a pet peeve).

    Now, I can’t you whether that belief is accurate or not. The fact, as the first year of the LPP process nears to a close, the LSUC hasn’t introduced those number for public discussion is a damning criticism of the LSUC and its lack of transparency – the LSUC should have collected that data months ago and it should be part of the current discussion. But I note that it’s a belief that is not wholly consistent with the data previously released by the LSUC in respect of unplaced articling students.

    For example, in the 2011 consulting report (which led to the creation of the LPP), the ultimate non-placement rate was approximately 10% (i.e 174 out of 1748). For aboriginal and disabled candiates, the ultimate non-placement rate just under 10%, for LGBT candidates it was just over 10% (~15% and 13% respectively). Indeed, the only group that was dramatically over-represented were francophone candidates (at just over 24%) a group that, one would expect would be predominantly white, heterosexual, and able-bodied. Curiously, no breakdown was provided between male and female candidates, nor was a breakdown provided between those students still seeking articling positions and those who had withdrawn.

    Now, it’s possible that those numbers would be different now – a lot has changed in four years. It’s possible that they were inaccurate then – I’ve seen the LSUC engage in some dubious statistics practices in this sort of research, so wouldn’t treat anything it does as gospel. But the point is that if we’re going to be having this discussion and want to assess the merits (or lack thereof) of the LPP process, it needs to be done on the basis of hard data, not based on our subjective feelings about what we think the data will be.

  3. Daniel Tucker-Simmons

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply. I, too, am a grammar nerd, and I appreciate the your comment regarding “comprised of”, though at a certain point, incorrect grammatical expressions become correct when they become common enough.

    I appreciate your insistence on “hard data”. I would counter, however, that there is an overwhelming amount of hard data to suggest that the entire economy, the professions included, is still highly segregated on the basis of gender, race, ability, and sexual orientation. As a consequence, I think we can safely presume that, absent hard evidence to the contrary, the LPP will not be an exception to these broader socio-economic trends.

    The more appropriate question, I think, is what evidence is there to believe that the LPP will belie the presumption of discrimination? Perhaps the data you cite is a start, but it is nowhere near conclusive, and it remains greatly outweighed by the vast body of social science data that tells us the legal profession is still highly segregated.

  4. In terms of statistics, I note that a survey in Ultra Vires (a periodical published by the University of Toronto’s law students) discovered that the most important factor in determining whether or not someone was invited to an OCI interview, apart from tolerable grades, was whether or not (s)he had a parent who was a lawyer.

  5. Daniel,

    1) As I illustrated recently to a law class at UBC, legal services don’t necessarily follow traditional supply-demand curves. Courts are still backlogged, and unrepresented rates are higher than ever.

    2) The LPP wasn’t proposed to solve the problem of access to justice, only the problem of routes to licensing.

    3) The lack of LPP, or maintaining an exclusive route to licensing through articling which already largely excludes marginalized communities, has already created an untenable situation.
    I’ve previously raised the issue of familial nepotism in the law, and the Ultra Vires article mentioned above, here. Remember, the LPP was a decision made after years of mounting inaction and repeated broken promises by Convocation.

    Let’s also be careful not to conflate the issues. The LPP program is intended to address the articling crisis, not necessarily access to justice. If you see the reservations I expressed about the program during the debate, which I linked to above, I am very clear that there are some potential shortcomings. The inelegance of the solution we’ve devised, and the delays in developing it to begin with, are all a function of the effectiveness of Convocation.

    This is exactly why the Bencher Elections matter. Benchers should be selected beyond just the platforms they present, but also their abilities to explore, discover, research and modify their positions through compromise, negotiation and collaboration. Those are personality traits, not something you find on the LSUC website.

    How well do you know your Bencher candidates?

  6. Articling crisis? I’ve never been comfortable with this apocalyptic term.

    I think we can all agree that not everyone who wants to become a lawyer should become a lawyer.

    There are a number of requirements to become a lawyer in Ontario:
    1) sufficient grades in an undergraduate degree
    2) sufficient LSAT score
    3) passing law school courses
    4) passing the bar exam
    5) obtaining and completing articles

    Why are we okay with people failing to meet the first 4 requirements but not the 5th? Is it because they are so close to becoming licensed? There is nothing different about applying to an articling position than applying to any other job. An applicant’s success will be primarily based on his/her marks and interview, but certainly there will be unfair considerations as well. (Though I note that the ultra vires article, cited above, found that gender and ethnicity “doesn’t matter at all” for getting a summer job).

    Furthermore, I do not believe there are many Ontario law grads who are truly unable to complete articling. Certainly not enough to warrant a “crisis”. Surely, there are many grads who fail to obtain the articling position they want; however, I find it hard to imagine there are any who cannot obtain an articling position at all. There are more than 30,000 practising lawyers in Ontario. Is it truly impossible to find one who will offer an unpaid articling position? I acknowledge that an unpaid articling position is inconvenient and perhaps, in some cases, would require a year of employment before it would be affordable. Nevertheless, the reality is that the grad who finds him/herself in this situation could likely have avoided it by hard work and better networking – two skills vital to the successful lawyer. The transition from the idealism of school to the real world is difficult, but it is unavoidable.

    Frankly, the law grad who is unable to obtain any articling position will not be a successful lawyer.

    Life isn’t easy. Becoming a lawyer shouldn’t be easy. People should be able to fail. We are doing a disservice to ourselves and our clients by watering down the standards of our profession.

  7. Jay,
    One of the biggest challenges around the LPP debate is that it has some very, very deep roots, that most people are completely oblivious to. What I mean by this is that the articling shortage was identified and anticipated as early as 2007 by Convocation. The Task Force convened presented 4 options in January 2008:

    1) Continue the program, but make it clear that the Law Society makes no
    guarantees that candidates will find employment.
    2) Accept that if there is to be an apprenticeship requirement the Law Society
    should take responsibility for all candidates who qualify, and develop an
    alternative stream for those unable to find a placement.
    3) Abolish the articling requirement.
    4) Seek additional solutions from those being consulted.

    The perspective you provide is essentially the first one from the list above, at a time when almost all of the articling candidates were still Ontario graduates. The overwhelming response from the bar was to create more jobs, even though these promises never actually materialized.

    In order to have productive discussions about articling, as well as the future of the profession, we need to actually be fully informed of these issues. Otherwise, we’re simply rehashing the same debates that happened nearly a decade ago. If you prefer, the “articling crisis” just as easily refers to a crisis of Convocation in being completely ineffective at its first attempt at resolving this the last time around. To the Task Force’s credit, the LPP is at least a solution, even if it is an imperfect or incomplete one. The future benchers will have to decide how to perfect it or make it better.

    The one advantage of the life benchers was that there was greater continuity. I don’t think that alone outweighs the advantages of bringing in fresh ideas and perspectives, but history lessons of what has transpired in the past few years are absolutely crucial here.

  8. Yes, it is clear that I am a proponent of the first option.

    The legal market will dictate the appropriate number of articling positions. When lawyers are busy, there will be a greater need for cheap legal labour in the form of articling positions and first year associates. When lawyers are less busy, there will be less positions. I’m not aware of any evidence that suggests this model has ceased to work in providing quality legal services to the public and in providing a level of comfort to the members of our profession.

    The demand for legal services will only increase if lawyers want to get paid less (we don’t) or the government wants to increase legal aid (they don’t).

    Why should we artificially increase the supply of lawyers? It seems inevitable that we will move towards the situation in the United States, as outlined in the New York Times article you cited.

  9. Isn’t requiring year-long articles an artificial decrease in the supply of lawyers? It also raises concerns about giving employers too much bargaining power vis-a-vis employees (articling students) both as a gatekeeper to the profession and given the various ESA exclusions. Having LPP or a similar option is a good idea.

  10. Sorry, “artificially” was a poor word choice. Delete it (or replace it with “dramatically”) and my sentence more accurately reflects my opinion.

    Basically, why do we want more lawyers? Why would we want to move towards the situation in the United States? Are there proportionally less lawyers today than 20 years ago? Is there legal work that is not being done because there are not enough lawyers? (Rather than a lack of funding)

    There are certainly underserviced regions of the province, but for the most part people don’t struggle to find a lawyer – they struggle to pay for it.

  11. Jay,

    You hit the nail on the head – in some ways.

    The demand for legal services has never been higher. Increasing the supply of lawyers however does not appear to effectively address that demand, because the way legal services are currently structured they are simply unaffordable for the majority of the public.

    This is what I was referring to when I stated that legal services do not follow traditional supply/demand models.

    Once again though, I’ll emphasize that the LPP was not designed to address this. Some of the proposals around the LPP debate, such as using articling candidates in Legal Aid clinics, could have potentially addressed these needs. But that’s not what the articling crisis was ever about.

    The larger issues you highlight here are certainly ones we all need to reflect on. ABS is currently being touted as one of the potential solutions. I’m not sure that it is. Whatever the solution is, this will inevitably be the defining issue (or crisis) for this generation of lawyers.

    Those lawyers who were called to the bar in an unorthodox way, in this case the LPP program, may be able to assist us in designing these solutions by redrawing the box, instead of just trying to think outside of it.