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Education Shortage of articling positions for students up for debate in Law Society elections

Douglas Judson of the Law Students' Society of Ontario says the Law Practice Program isn’t erasing barriers for students.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Recent changes to legal education have not solved the problem of a shortage of articling positions for law students, candidates for the governing council of Ontario's law society say.

Voting began last week for the Law Society of Upper Canada's board of directors, known as benchers, 40 of whom are chosen every four years. The board will decide whether to extend or end the pilot Law Practice Program (LPP), which was designed to provide a new pathway to licensing.

Rather than take articling positions, law students who follow the LPP path do four months of course work and four months in a work placement. Ryerson University offers the program in English and the University of Ottawa has it in French.

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Debate over the LPP, now in the first year of a three-year pilot, was divisive, with 20 out of 56 members of the law society's council voting against it in 2013. Some of this year's bencher candidates question its merits.

"I'm concerned about the stigma. Where you have any program that is very new, there is a perception that people ended up there because they were not good enough to get into the preferred articling program," said Renatta Austin, who graduated from the University of Toronto's law school three years ago and is running to be a bencher.

The debate comes among among wider questions about legal education and whether it should continue expanding even though hundreds of students every year cannot find articling positions.

Traditionally, getting a licence to practice law has required completing three years of coursework, bar exams and 10 months as an apprentice in a law firm. Four years ago, in response to an increasing number of students unable to get articling positions, the law society established a task force to study the so-called "articling crisis." The LPP was born out of those consultations.

Even if it fills a gap in the labour market, aspiring lawyers and the profession may not be well served by it, critics say.

"Are people who are already facing barriers falling into the LPP? We are not solving a problem if we are just moving the barriers further down the field," said Douglas Judson, the outgoing president of the Law Students' Society of Ontario, who graduates from York University's Osgoode Hall Law School this spring.

According to Chris Bentley, the executive director of Ryerson's LPP, about 30 per cent of the positions available through the program were unpaid, a number the school wants to see reduced.

Critics say minority students and other underrepresented groups who already have increased difficulty finding articling jobs may be more likely to turn to the LPP.

"Racial minorities, particularly black and aboriginal people, are at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to find articling positions and are likely to be overrepresented in the LPP program. A second tier is magnifying the disadvantage that disadavantaged people find themselves in," Ms. Austin said.

Those who like the program say they want it to continue precisely because it is an alternate way to licensing.

"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," said Janet Minor, the treasurer of the Law Society, who led a study that led to the program.

The LPP has not been the only change to how lawyers are educated. At the newly opened Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University, students do not have to article or enroll in the LPP once they graduate: The school's program combines classroom theory and practice.

"You have practical training in mock trials and written submissions – it is all integrated into the curriculum," said Leslie de Meulles, who worked as a policy adviser for the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines before applying to Lakehead.

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Ms. de Meulles, who is in her first year and will be president of the school's law students society next year, hopes to work in the north after graduation. And in those areas, the legal crisis is of a different nature, she said.

"Rural communities are underserviced for lawyers. We need lawyers here the same way we need northern doctors."

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