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Profession needs to create opportunities for young lawyers

I often hear that millennials are lazy, they want too much too fast, and that they are unwilling to work for their success. I hear this on the street, on the radio, I read it online, and I hear it at social events.

However, based on my experience, this is absolutely false and, if anything, insulting when directed toward students in or graduating from our law schools today. They have done all we have asked of them.

We have asked them to do well in high school, get into a good university, and then, if they find success in these, take the next step and get a law degree and become a lawyer. Now, saddled with debts sometimes into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the opportunity cost of so many years of foregone employment, they seek an articling position and they are forced into a fierce struggle for low-paying positions in law firms.

Many must end up volunteering just to meet this final requirement, further increasing their debt levels. If lucky and they obtain an articling position (paid or unpaid) and are called to the bar, many — especially in Toronto and Vancouver — then struggle to find work while facing record high-property costs. Their dreams and aspirations of a career in law and home ownership seem to be just that — dreams. But they have done all we have asked of them. We as a profession have failed them.

This should not be taken in any way to discourage anyone who is passionate about the study and practice of law from going to law school. However, he or she must be mindful that the opportunities to become a lawyer in the ivory towers of big cities may not be feasible. A law degree opens up many different options, such as working in-house, in a compliance function, human resources, labour relations, consulting, etc.  But we as a profession must also make this transition easier. We must work to provide opportunities so that those who have invested in us are able to put their learning into practice. Here are just a few ideas to make sure that we can assist those graduating from law schools:

•    As proposed by Jim Middlemiss in his article “It’s time to scrap articling”, maybe the best solution is to eliminate articling. Clearly, there are issues with placement availability. The quality of postings is often questionable, and as he notes, “It’s often minorities and foreign-trained lawyers left in the cold.” We could replace articling with a U.S.-style system where students are licensed to practice upon graduation once they pass the state bar exams.

•    If we keep articling, I would recommend that the Law Practice Program be extended, and it should become not the alternative to traditional articling but rather the actual formal articling process. Those fortunate enough to find articling placements in the major law firms should be allowed to pursue that alternative approach, but it will not be considered the mainstream. That being said, I would make the LPP experience/work placement eight months. For those who accept an unpaid placement, maybe we should consider allowing the Ontario Student Assistance Program to be a support during this placement, as it is contributing to their education. 

•    If all considerations are on the table and we are keeping articling, we should consider having articling replace the third year of law school.

•    Governments need to step up. While I applaud the intent, rather than proposing free education in Ontario for those under a certain income bracket — which ignores the needs of a large middle class that cannot assist in paying for its children’s education — we should provide one year exemption from income tax payments for students for every year of full-time university study. This will help alleviate the financial burdens of students and allow them to offset the opportunity cost of their investment, which we have always told them is an investment to increase the skills and competitiveness of our cities, provinces, and country.  

You may not agree with my proposals, but we need to put ideas on the table and re-think the status quo, which is not working. That being said, what advice can I give those looking today for articling roles?

•    Network, network, network. Don’t be shy. You invested in your career and studies — now make the most of it. Feel proud of your accomplishments and market yourself. Reach out to lawyers at the firms you may want to article at, reach out to in-house counsel, reach out to community organizations you may want to work with. Be visible and let them know what you want and what you can do for them!

•    Consider whether you really want to practice law at a law firm. Either way, apply, apply, apply to as many positions (law firms, in-house, government agencies, labour unions, not-for-profits) as you think necessary, as long as you think there is some value in you articling there. At worst, it is a step you must complete, so do it and try to make the most of it. See Alan Ritchie’s article where he argues that people are increasingly going in-house after articles.

•    Consider alternatives such as the LPP program in Ontario. With the right placement, you will learn as much if not more than you would at a law firm.

Finally, but most importantly, do not get discouraged. Many of those practicing today had it much easier than you do today. It was easier for us to get into law school, it was much less expensive to study, and there were numerous articling and associate roles available for us once law school was complete. We have let you down. It won’t be easy, but know that there are many of us concerned about you, supporting you, trying to fix the system, and always willing to lend a hand.

  • Stats

    John Kelner
    79.48% of all statistics are made up on the spot.
  • Lawyer

    Bradley Wright
    1. The profession does not have to create opportunities for anyone. How would they do that? By churning files? Encouraging frivolous suits?
    2. The profession is not to blame for the fact that in the last 18 years about 40% of the grads are students who, prior to then, either would not have gotten into law school or would not have made it past the 1st year Christmas exams. There isn't the work to support them all at least in the large cities. There are great careers to be had in small towns and the north. People who go there,love it.
    3. Doing well at university is not what it used to be given mark inflation (38% of the students should not be qualifying for As).
    4. The best preparation for private practice is experience at the elbow of a mentor in private practice, something articling provides and other models do not. Sorry, but shortening/eliminating articles, inflating marks, bloating the law schools, & graduating virtually everyone, are all bad moves.
  • basis for claims?

    nab s
    You state that "in the last 18 years about 40% of the grads are students who, prior to then, either would not have gotten into law school or would not have made it past the 1st year Christmas exams."

    On what logical basis can you conclude this? Are you a professor at a Canadian lawschool? Even if so, it wouldnt matter, because your course curriculum's difficulty is unlikely to represent the variability in difficulty of other courses.

    I also take issue with your suggestion of mark inflation.
    How can you suggest such an arbitrary number ie 38% of the students should not be qualifying for As?

    It's a silly claim to make given that you would have to understand how each professor for each course marks their students for literally, thousands of courses in Canada.

    The profession may not be to blame, but you're missing the point of the article, which overall, is to assist grads by rethinking a broken system. I don't think that's too much to ask.
  • Lawyer

    Bradley Wright
    Part 3: Having said all that, there is always room for talented lawyers. The surest way to a good career in private practice for those who cannot get hired by existing firms is to set up in communities that are under-served - the small towns and the north. Trouble is most students want to be in the cities that have law schools in them. Those cities are overrun with lawyers and the competition is so bad that it is unhealthy to the public interest as well as the lawyer's interest. I wish you well.

    I agree that the system has many broken parts. One of those cracked and fractured parts is admission process. There are many others and I spent great amounts of time trying to ameliorate them. I encourage you to do the same. Btw, ABS, sold as a panacea, would be the worst thing that could ever happen to new calls. The profit motivated corporations would be keen to cut lawyers out of the equation as much as possible. ABS would lead to fewer, not more, hobs for lawyers.
  • Lawyer

    Bradley Wright
    Part 2: The fact is that many students are getting into law school today who would not have qualified in the past. Then, virtually none of them fails. They graduate with whopping loans, and increasing numbers of them cannot find jobs, not because the profession is closed, but because there is not the economic basis to justify hiring them. I understand the problems faced by new grads, but they were not caused by the profession. They were caused by the desire of the law schools to maximize revenues, the dropping of entry and graduation standards, and the negligence of the government which seems happy to subsidize battalions of unneeded law students while simultaneously rationing funds for medical students. Governments ration doctors to keep the OHIP payroll costs down. If the government nationalized the legal profession the way they did the medical, the government would shut down three of the seven law schools in short order and reduce enrollment in the remaining four.