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Reality bites for LPP students

Getting licensed to practise in Ontario is hitting some people extra hard
|Written By Matt Hopkins
Reality bites for LPP students

Much has been said about the ongoing articling crisis in Ontario, but what we aren’t talking about enough is the impact the crisis is having on prospective licensees. In my previous articles for Canadian Lawyer 4Students, I spoke a bit about my journey and how that journey ultimately took me to Ontario’s new Law Practice Program at Ryerson University.

As I now look back at the academic portion of the LPP, the biggest challenge I faced was not writing memorandums or participating in moots but rather finding a way to pay for it all.

After seven years of post-secondary education, I am tapped out. My father served in the Canadian Forces and my mother worked in customer service positions. My family isn’t rich and we never were. We worked hard, met our needs, and even had time for fun, but there is a limit to how far a dollar can stretch.

I did not secure paid articling, though I did have the opportunity to article without pay. These were great opportunities but I simply couldn’t afford to capitalize on them while keeping a roof over my head. I turned to the LPP where, I hoped, I could find a way to a paid position. I was one of the lucky ones. I found a great job with amazing lawyers. I will be proud to go to work every day.

Unfortunately, others weren’t so lucky. Many of my friends are being asked to work for free for the next four months in hopes things will work out post-call. Some tried to make it for the full year without pay outside the LPP. Some were able to do it, some had to withdraw altogether because they had financial responsibilities that didn’t allow for such a sacrifice. Some had parents or other benefactors to rely on. This is real life.

Even with the prospects of a paycheque coming in January, I am faced with enormous debt loads that could easily drive me in to bankruptcy before the end of 2015. Christmas isn’t coming this year and it might not come next year. Without a small gift from my mom, who really can’t afford it, I wouldn’t even have a roof over my head right now.

I turned to crowdfunding but even that isn’t going well. I launched what I called Operation Debt Demolition on GoFundMe.com this past fall and hoped I could raise enough money to survive the down months of the LPP and give myself enough breathing room to get through licensing.

Like many, I have fully maxed out my professional student line of credit along with credit cards and a hefty bill due to the National Student Loans Service Centre. In June, once my articling year is finished, the monthly payments will run in the neighbourhood of $1,500 but right now it isn’t clear when, or if, my practice will get off the ground.

I hate to ask for help but I am. I am asking for help from strangers to make sure I can afford groceries. That doesn’t feel good. This wasn’t part of the plan.

My own problems aside, I look at the larger picture and invite you to do the same.

The articling crisis in Ontario has entered a new phase where LPP is doing its best to secure four-month contracts for its candidates. This is a monumental shift from the previous model where students at law were benefitting from regular paycheques as early as May.

The best-case scenario under the new model is that a licensee will be forced to work for free for at least four months, full time, without the benefit of the Ontario Student Assistance Program or any other existing funding model.

As this model catches on and employers realize they have a captive audience, it is quite possible the new normal will involve all articling positions being unpaid. This isn’t good for any of us.

What has to change? First, we have to acknowledge the LPP is, in effect, a seventh semester of law school. It is an academic program with papers, presentations, and final assessments. If we accept that this is true, we can ensure OSAP is available to students going through the process so they have predictable, sustainable access to funding.

This will also lead banks to consider the LPP, or an unpaid articling year, as part of the required process of obtaining a licence in the province of Ontario. While this would add to the larger debt of each student, such students would be able to make an informed decision about whether it was worth that risk. For me, this would have solved the problem.

Second, we have to acknowledge the articling process lacks clarity. Some work long hours at the side of an experienced lawyer who meaningfully involves the student in the practice of law. Others get coffee, dry cleaning, and complete the photocopying. Still others do the Law Practice Program, writing papers and participating in moots as if law school never ended.

If the law schools aren’t delivering enough practical training to fulfill a complete legal education worthy of licensing, AND if the articling process currently isn’t sustainable in an economic sense, AND if the articling process isn’t successfully ensuring new licensees have the competencies required of a lawyer, perhaps we all have to go back to the drawing board and chart a new path forward that considers these challenges.

Of course, all of these are larger questions and I promise I will be a meaningful participant in successfully navigating them. In the meantime, I’m focused on making sure I can afford groceries and that’s why Operation Debt Demolition continues. If you can help with that, I’d be forever grateful but don’t let the larger story pass you by.

I may be the one writing the article, but I speak for many who are struggling just as hard and who are just as afraid. We have a lot to offer but sometimes, the challenges seem insurmountable.

Matt Hopkins is a graduate of Western Law School and part of the Law Practice Program at Ryerson University, working to become a lawyer in Barrie, Ont.

  • Good To Know...

    Also In The Process
    Thanks for the feedback on the LPP. I'm in the LSUC process and it seems like unpaid articles is becoming the new normal. If you can find even them. I knew it would be tough, but wow.

    I was surprised that LPP work terms are also unpaid - I got the impression LSUC was working to make it a sustainable and paid alternative on principle and more firms would be attracted to the shorter term and lower costs. I guess not yet.

    Given the overpopulation of law grads compared to articling and 1A positions in the industry, I'm glad the LPP exists, even merely as a trial. Since you pay the same fees regardless of if they find paid or unpaid articles, or opt for the LPP. Its kind of sad economic reality that a key draw of the LPP seems to be that it requires only 4 vs 10 months of unpaid articling. (Plus the cost of getting to and living in Toronto bi-monthly sessions at Ryerson, which is a significant cost for those who don't live in the GTA.)
  • No solution - part 3

    Articling Student
    Research has shown, time and again, that wealthier students consistently are more eligible for scholarships and grants because they have more time to devote to their studies, unlike poorer students who juggle school with a part-time job (or two), and lack of collateral makes them search high and low for guarantors on bank loans. The bulk of the students who end up as NCA are those who cannot afford the exorbitant law school fees here, and are better able to afford fees in England or Aussie and/or can only manage a law school education part-time, because they need a job to put food on the table. Your 'solution' is no solution at all, and ranks below the LPP in terms of solving real problems.
  • Solution

    Canadian Law Student
    I’ve heard every excuse in the book from “I wanted the international experience” to “it’s the birthplace of the common law” but never did I once hear anyone have the audacity to claim that students go abroad because they cannot afford the domestic fees. Do you know why, because it is far more expensive to go abroad than to study in Canada. The fees are too much in Ontario? Go to Saskatchewan, Manitoba or the University of New Brunswick where the tuition is under 10K/year. The bulk of the NCA students go abroad because they have subpar GPAs and LSAT scores and CAN afford to pay the inflated international law student tuition + challenge Exams + certification fees + flights + Visas + accommodations, and not because they CAN’T afford to go to a domestic law school.
  • Not A Solution

    Youre wrong
    Good for you. However some people qualified for home fee status in the UK and so paid 3K GBP per year, which is less even than those other provinces especially considering lack of undergraduate requirements. Get off your high horse.
  • Solution

    Canadian Law Student
    We need the RIGHT number of lawyers (we have too many) and more efficient means of delivering legal services. Firms like Axess law operating out of Walmart providing affordable basic legal services, legal insurance plans like DAS, prepaid legal plans, unbundling of legal services to paralegals, increasing the limits one can sue for in small claims court where litigants and represent themselves, front ended call centres where you can access free basic legal advice, employment sponsored legal plans, etc. I am a very active member in the Access to Justice community as it is my passion. Please do not think for a minute that we have an access to justice problem simply because we don't have enough lawyers. Do you think that these NCA lawyers from degree mills set up shop to help the poor? No, they compete for the Bay Street jobs just like all the Canadian students. The only difference is that they don’t get them.
  • Solution

    Canadian Law Student
    You have misunderstood what I wrote. Please read carefully. I said that more lawyers would increase costs. I did not say that a small number of lawyers would decrease costs. A small number of lawyers would create a monopoly on the profession and may increase legal costs. Conversely, a large number of lawyers would make lawyers have to charge more for less work in order to maintain their overhead. A large number of lawyers will not make access to justice any better. If you want evidence, look down south. The United States has a VERY large number of lawyers and they have a huge access to justice problem. Access to justice is a complicated issue with multiple systemic factors including poverty, racial profiling, lack of basic legal and practical education, inadequate social services, inadequate government funding, lawyers not wanting to work for little money, etc.
  • NOT a solution - part 2

    Articling Student
    The notion that fewer lawyers will make legal services more affordable for the public at large makes no sense. One graduate, who has to manage overheads, debts etc MUST charge an astronomical fee. A bunch of graduates, sharing space, and thereby sharing overheads, can easily afford to charge less, making justice more accessible.
  • part 3

    Articling Student
    Research has shown, time and again, that wealthier students consistently are more eligible for scholarships and grants because they have more time to devote to their studies, unlike poorer students who juggle school with a part-time job (or two), and lack of collateral makes them search high and low for guarantors on bank loans. The bulk of the students who end up as NCA are those who cannot afford the exorbitant law school fees here, and are better able to afford fees in England or Aussie and/or can only manage a law school education part-time, because they need a job to put food on the table. Your 'solution' is no solution at all, and ranks below the LPP in terms of solving real problems.
  • NOT a solution

    Articling Student
    Fewer lawyers = supply < demand

    Lawyers can then charge exorbitant rates, because people without choices will have to pay it, or forego having lawyers altogether.

    Lawyers do not have big overheads - big firms have large overheads. Sole practitioners who share space, admin staff etc save on overheads.

    More lawyers mean less work for big firms, because they can't charge the big bucks. More lawyers charging lower rates improves access to justice, and keeps more lawyers employed. They may not be driving Ferraris and living in Rosedale, but they would earn a decent income (if law school tuition was also reduced).
  • Tuition costs

    Articling Student
    Reducing class sizes and blocking NCA students will not help - that will only take us back to the time when only the children of rich, privileged families went to law school, where everyone is on Bay Street and charging $700 an hour, and there is no access to justice.

    We need to reduce the tuition at law schools, incorporate the bar exam into the law school program, include practicums at law school and do away with articling.

    The LPP has been an unequivocal disaster.
  • The Solution

    Canadian Law Student
    Children of privileged families with subpar GPAs and LSATS get can (and do) become lawyers by attending inferior law schools from abroad. They spend thousands of dollars more then their Canadian counterparts who receive access to provincial student loans, bursaries, scholarships, favourable bank loans, etc.

    Please explain how blocking such NCA students would lead to "everyone is on Bay Street and charging $700 an hour, and there is no access to justice." Respond to my earlier argument where I stated that "More lawyers means less work all around. Legal costs wont go down, they will go up." Remember that lawyers have big overheads and must charge more for less work if they are to make a profit. That means, more lawyers = higher costs = less access to justice.
  • The Solution

    Canadian Law Student
    The LPP is a band aid solution to a problem of too many lawyers. Yes we have an 'articling crisis.' But in 4 more years when the LPP finishes its trial run', we will have a 'first year call crisis' where first years are not able to find work. They will be forced to hang their own shingle. More lawyers means less work all around. Legal costs wont go down, they will go up.

    The solution: we need to do away with this 'You can be whatever you want to be' mentality. Some people are not fit to be lawyers. Reduce the size of Ottawa's law class and cap off the other Ontario law schools. Most of all stop letting these backdoor NCA Canadians from Bond, Leicester, Cooley, etc... Problem Solved.
  • Change Needed ASAP

    Jeffrey K
    Universities are using Law faculties to subsidize their operating budgets... that is the first thing that needs to change. Second, the professional elements of the bar admission course and that of ethics needs to be integrated in the law school curriculum across the Province. Third, articling needs to be eliminated and a process of CPD needs to take its place. Our system is archaic and other world class jurisdictions do not use these systems anymore. Finally, law school enrollment needs to be reduced by half (contrary to concerns over 'access to justice'... the increased #'s have left many unable to practice).
  • Reduce tuition

    Miles End
    If it's the norm that a good part of the graduating class won't get paid articling positions, it's time to slash law school tuition and lower enrollment numbers. No matter what the law schools say, law school is professional school--not some place for deep intellectual thought. The job is part intellectual, but it's all about learning cases and statues.

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