Meagan Williams, 30, has a seemingly impressive résumé for a budding lawyer: a law degree from University of Western Ontario, good grades, two summers in a "pretty coveted" position at her school's legal clinic, experience at mock-trial competitions, and a master's degree in politics.
But despite her achievements, she was initially unable to secure one of the 10-month articling positions mandatory for all Canadian law-school graduates who wish to become fully fledged lawyers. And she was not alone.
In what's been called an "articling crisis," 12 per cent of Ontario law school graduates were unable to get articling jobs in 2011, according to statistics from the Law Society of Upper Canada. A new task force is mulling a range of reforms, while some in the profession call for the creation of alternatives to mandatory articling, or even the scrapping of it all together.
"I was definitely staring in the face of this huge barrier to doing what I want to do," said Ms. Williams, who says she spent her third year looking for an articling post, even cold-calling small law firms across Ontario trying to convince them to take on an articling student. She has since attained one of the positions she had hoped for all along, at Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney-General, starting next year.
But while most of her classmates were already working at a law firm after graduation, Ms. Williams and many others like her remained in a kind of limbo, facing the prospect of being left with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and with a law degree but no way to actually practise law. Worse, they faced competition for the next year's articling positions from the new cohort of students coming up behind them.
Some blame law firms, accusing them of reducing their hiring in the face of economic uncertainty. But according to Law Society statistics, there has also been a steady increase in the number of law graduates, as law schools have increased their enrolments. The number of law students successfully landing articling jobs has increased each year since 2007, but it has not kept pace with demand.
The head of the Law Society's task force on the issue, Ottawa lawyer Tom Conway, says the society has tried to address the shortfall in recent years, doing things like streamlining the process and attempting to link smaller firms outside Toronto with students. But the results have been negligible.
"We haven't really been able to create one additional articling position, as a result of all of those efforts," Mr. Conway said.
The debate in the profession over what to do now is intense, he adds: "There isn't one person that I've spoken to that, one, doesn't have an opinion about this and, two, has the same opinion as another person."
His committee will present a "full range" of options in a December report, but he would not say what options were likely to be on the table. He did say that all on the committee believe articling, or some equivalent, is necessary to ensure lawyers have the required practical training.
There is no shortage of alternatives in other places. In the United States, articling does not exist, and lawyers are expected to learn on the job. In Australia, law students take part in a formal practical legal training program.
Lorne Sossin, the dean of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, says he believes articling is invaluable, but opposes keeping it as a mandatory requirement for going on to practise law: "It shouldn't be the bottleneck that keeps qualified graduates of law school from having a chance to contribute."
Not everyone agrees the system is broken. Deborah Glatter, who is in charge of student programs and professional development at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, says law firms outside the downtown Toronto ones most students desire are in fact eager for articling applicants.
Plus, she argued, the process tends to weed out those who can't cut it. Sometimes, even hot-shot law students turn out to be less-than-ideal candidates, she said.
"I get cover letters from students who are at the top of their class with spelling errors," Ms. Glatter said. " … We can be choosy, because there are fewer positions than applicants. But I think sometimes the market is doing what it ought to do."
Some say the recent approval of a new law school at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, set to open next year, as well as the new law school at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., will only make the problem worse.
But Chris Axworthy, dean of the new Thompson Rivers law school, argues the articling crisis is mostly a big-city phenomenon.
Rural and aboriginal communities are actually underserved by the legal profession, he points out, and filling that need is part of his new school's mission: "We will do what other law schools do, but we will also ensure the opportunity to work in a smaller community and a smaller firm is a real opportunity for students."