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Ryerson University President Sheldon Levy speaks to the media during a news conference in February 2005. Levy is welcoming the testing of a new alternative to Ontario’s legal articling system next fall in an attempt to bridge the gap between law students’ skills and job requirements.J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

A new alternative to Ontario's legal articling system will be tested at Ryerson University and the University of Ottawa next fall, aimed at easing a shortage of positions that has frustrated law students.

The Law Practice Program is part of a pilot project the Law Society of Upper Canada agreed to last fall because 300 to 400 students each year have been unable to land the articling jobs they need to be licensed as lawyers. The program offers students four months in course-based training and four more in a co-op placement, often unpaid at smaller or rural firms.

But some within the Law Society have criticized the program – 20 of 56 council members voted against it. They argue some firms will see the participants as second-class, that it will create a two-tiered licensing system, and that the $4,700 in fees will add to the burden on students of an education that is already expensive. It offers an alternative to the large firms where many articling jobs are concentrated, but also an uncertain path.

Between 200 and 400 students are expected to take the program in English at Ryerson, which has a legal research centre but no law school. The university was chosen for its expertise in practical and digital learning, as the course-based component will be run mostly through web-based modules that simulate the job, with students spending less than two weeks total on campus.

"We are not looking at this in any way as the second chance," Ryerson president Sheldon Levy said. "We are determined to make this the preferred choice [to articling]."

The University of Ottawa will deliver the program in French, drawing on its faculty of law's history of bilingual legal education. It will take up to 40 students annually, in particular those wanting to start their own practice or work in an underserved community.

The Law Society is banking on the allure of hands-on training in contrast to the unregulated world of articling. "We do know for a fact that many [articling] students simply spend eight, nine, 10 months photocopying every day," said Omar Ha-Redeye, a lawyer at Fleet Street Law who teaches at Ryerson. "They don't actually learn how to practice law."

In spite of the skepticism, Law Society treasurer Tom Conway is confident that "fair-minded people" will eventually come around to the program's value.

"It's more compressed, it's more controlled," he said. "They are going to be receiving new experiences every day in that program as they get slotted into a virtual law firm and they're required to deal with the kinds of problems that lawyers in specific types of practices deal with day in, day out."

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