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Brianna Sims, a graduate of Ryerson’s LPP program who is now working at a labour litigation firm, says making the profession more accessible should be seen as a benefit of the program.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The controversy over a pilot project to address a shortage of articling positions has been reignited with an Ontario law society committee's call to end the program because it has been stigmatized by law school graduates and some in the legal profession.

The Law Society of Upper Canada's Law Practice Program began in 2014 as a response to the increasing number of new graduates who were not able to find positions articling – the supervised, 10-month apprenticeship with a law firm that is required to become a lawyer. Students in the LPP spend four months in a "virtual" law office where they take on a variety of cases, and then participate in a four-month work placement.

Ryerson University and the University of Ottawa offer the pilot. Surveys done for a report on the pilot project from the society's professional development and competence committee indicated many of the students took the program only because they had to do so.

"Graduates of law schools are very concerned about getting jobs," said Peter Wardle, the chair of the committee. "Most of the ones who took the surveys as part of the evaluation process don't see the Law Practice Program as an acceptable alternative. They're not in it by choice, they're in it because they couldn't get an articling position."

While the report says the quality of the program is not in question, "there is a perception among candidates and some Articling Principals that the LPP is viewed as second-tier transitional experiential training with stigma attached to those who complete it." (Articling principals are the lawyers who supervise articling students.)

The debate is likely to be fractious when the recommendation to end the program is put to a vote at the law society's November convocation, a meeting of its board of directors. Not even the committee was unanimous about the recommendation, with three of 14 members dissenting and two abstaining.

Graduates of the LPP and the schools that offer it are already rallying to save the program, arguing that to end it before an alternative can be designed is short-sighted.

"The recommendation is a missed opportunity for the law society, and we hope the full convocation will reconsider it," said Chris Bentley, the executive director of Ryerson University's LPP program. "People are finding a path to success that they would not otherwise find, and they are getting called to the bar."

Fears that the LPP could be perceived as a second-choice option in a two-tier system preceded its introduction in 2014. In fact, some members of the law society's articling task force preferred replacing articling with a universal training course.

The LPP "does not appear to be providing an alternative to articling that has gained acceptance by candidates and the profession and that is sustainable in the long term," the current report says. "The Committee recommends that the LPP end following the completion of [the current year]."

More than 700 students so far have completed or are taking the LPP. But the report found that was not enough to open up more articling opportunities.

Both the Ryerson and Ottawa programs received high marks in the 200-page report. Candidates met or exceeded requirements and the programs were "rigorous" and vibrant.

But the report also argues that the pilot is not financially sustainable. It is funded through an additional $1,900 licensing fee from each of the more than 2,000 people who enter the profession each year. If the fee was charged to LPP participants only, it could rise to as much as $17,000.

"If we ended that subsidy, it's very difficult to see how we could keep the licensing fees where they are. That would be an additional barrier that would be borne by that group of candidates," Mr. Wardle said.

A third of graduates who enrolled in the LPP had unpaid four-month placements, the committee report states. Only 3 per cent those who articled worked for free.

In addition, a higher percentage of those in the LPP self-identified as belonging to racialized minorities or aboriginal groups, or were over 40 years old, groups that have the most difficulty finding articling jobs.

Making the profession more accessible should be seen as a benefit of the LPP, said Brianna Sims, a graduate of Ryerson's LPP program who is now working at a Toronto-based labour litigation firm.

Like many of those in the LPP, Ms. Sims earned her law degree outside Canada.

"Coming from a foreign law school, I did not have a good network of lawyers in Toronto and I wanted more experience with Canadian law," said Ms. Sims, who attended the international law program at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

The LPP went beyond what many articling experiences would include, she said, teaching her how to think about her long-term career, from billing clients to managing people.

"You are really thinking like you are running your own practice. ... It's much more practical and structured," she said.

Regardless of whether the law society votes to end the program, other changes are likely coming to the licensing process. For example, the committee also recommends replacing the bar exam with two exams, one before the beginning of articling and one after.

A vote on all the proposals will take place in early November.

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