A shortage of law firms willing to hire articling students is forcing changes to a venerable – and fear-inducing – step along the journey to a career in law.
The governing body of Ontario lawyers – the Law Society of Upper Canada – will vote this week on a proposal to create a licensing process that would bypass the need for articling.
Alternatively, the law society may opt to simply abolish the age-old articling requirement, which has been under sustained attack for being discriminatory and antiquated.
The vote on Thursday stems from a conclusion by a law society task force that the articling system cannot survive in its present form. The task force recommends the creation of a separate licensing process for those who cannot find articling positions.
The process would emphasize course work and a 14-week co-op work placement that would likely be unpaid.
Thursday's meeting promises to be incendiary. In a statement Monday, the 4,700-member Advocates Society – an influential lawyers' organization – endorsed the minority on the task force and said the creation of a two-tiered process will help no one.
While other provinces all have a strict articling requirement, the job crunch is most extreme in Ontario. Alan Treleaven, director of education and practice at the Law Society of British Columbia, said that in his province, for example, the shortfall in articling positions is not perceived as an urgent problem.
However, the issue is sufficiently topical that a federation composed of all the provincial law societies intends to study the articling issue soon, Mr. Treleaven added.
In Ontario, the number of unsuccessful articling applicants last year reached 15 per cent. The apparent reasons are growth in the number of law schools and the effects of a bad economy on law-firm budgets.
Changes to the articling requirement are sure to be welcomed by many law students, said Dylan Chochla, a lawyer at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP who articled at the firm last year. Mr. Chochla said the need to obtain an articling position hangs over students from the day they arrive at law school – an iron-clad requirement that can make or break a legal career.
"Under the current system, a significant number of students do not secure articling positions by the time they graduate and are thus prevented from becoming licensed lawyers until they manage to complete their articles," Mr. Chochla said.
He said recruiting drives take place early in the second year at law school. Once firms have filled their positions, those who are left out have trouble finding an articling position.
"Needless to say, these can be stressful days," Mr. Chochla said.
In theory, articling allows law students to learn the legal ropes at a law firm for 10 months, after which they need only pass a bar admission exam to become lawyers.
However, critics disparage articling as being akin to penal servitude, where those lucky enough to land a job often find themselves working punishing hours on menial tasks in return for modest compensation. Members of minority groups consistently maintain that predominantly white, male lawyers tend to be attracted to law students who mirror their own background.
Paul Schabas, one of four task force members who voted for outright abolition, said the articling experience can leave individuals dangerously unaware of legal fields they may ultimately work in.
"There is an emotional attachment by the bar to what they experienced, causing them to treat articling as a sacred cow," he said. "But we need to justify it from a public-protection standpoint as well as a fairness standpoint. It's time for a fair, objective approach that is available to everyone."
Law society treasurer Tom Conway, who chaired the Ontario task force, said the new program would offer practical training in areas where articling positions are scarce, such as criminal defence work and family law.
"The situation we have now is worse than two-tier," Mr. Conway said. "We have some licensing candidates who can get jobs, and so get licensed, and we have a group of otherwise qualified and perfectly good lawyers who can't."