A fresh crop of Ontario law students will test out a contentious new articling system, not knowing whether graduates of the program will be treated as equals within the legal community.
Approved after a heated debate by the Law Society of Upper Canada on Thursday, the plan provides an alternative for students who fail to land articling jobs at law firms. They will instead take four extra months of classroom training and an unpaid, four-month co-op placement.
No law school has yet developed a curriculum, nor has any law firm signed up to take a co-op student – and critics warn that the plan will create a two-tier system that will stigmatize participants in the new program.
Omar Ha-Redeye, a Toronto civil litigator who writes a legal blog, said that skepticism – even resistance – is to be expected when details are so skimpy about a program that will transform a bedrock prerequisite to legal practice.
"Convocation passed a policy this week – not a detailed program," Mr. Ha-Redeyes aid. "It's [more than] a leap of faith – you have to suspend belief."
Mr. Ha-Redeye said large firms have made it clear that they are unlikely to take on co-op students. "The irony here is that we may just be swapping an articling shortage for a co-op shortage."
The new plan calls for many co-op placements to be with small firms or legal clinics, places that rarely took articling students in the past.
Morris Chochla, president of the Ontario Bar Association, said the social usefulness of providing students to these firms was part of what attracted his organization.
"There is no question that the profession will have to be pro-active and creative in ensuring these positions are available," Mr. Chochla said. "But we are a profession known to solve problems. We are realistically optimistic that the pilot project will lead us in the right direction."
Law students desperate for an articling position may initially leap at the new Law Practice Program. However, they may face the prospect of a program that is perceived as substandard.
"I do think it's going to be inferior," said Manny Sahota, a Toronto law student who obtained his initial legal training in England. "If you look at this in the traditional way – that the most competitive students get an articling position – everybody is going to look down on it. If I were an employer, I wouldn't really want to hire a student who couldn't get an articling position."
Paul Schabas, a law society council member who opposed the plan, said the costs of extra education and an unpaid co-op placement will also be prohibitive. "They have approved a course that is going to put a huge burden on those who take it," he said.
Mr. Schabas said the fact that 20 of 56 council members voted against the plan – including five former heads of the law society – shows how divided the legal establishment is.
Among those who oppose it are most organizations representing minority lawyers.
Andrew Alleyne, president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, said minority groups have always had trouble landing articling positions.
"Under the proposed, two-tiered system, these groups will be even more disproportionately disadvantaged," he said.
Mr. Ha-Redeye said the legal profession has tended to be in perpetual denial of any inequities.
"That makes it difficult for them to recognize any tier, let alone a tier that emerges from a reform of the licensing process," he said.
However, Mr. Ha-Redeye said the new program should not be written off prematurely, since articling has ample shortcomings of its own.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that there are some articling students who simply become professional photocopiers over the 10-month term," he said.
"In fact, the majority either become proficient at memo writing or at document review. I question whether these are the types of skills that are necessary for entry into practice."