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Practical solutions to articling crisis

|Written By Doug Ferguson

The lack of articling jobs for law graduates and major reforms in law school curriculum in the United States are creating a perfect storm that could cause major changes to Canadian legal education.

At the annual conference of the Association for Canadian Clinical Legal Education at Osgoode Hall Law School on Sept. 24, a panel told the crowd that articling in its present form is no longer sustainable. For example, Law Society of Upper Canada Bencher Tom Conway, chairman of the task force on articling, provided statistics showing that more than 12 per cent of law school graduates in 2011 couldn’t find an articling position.

The cause of this high unemployment rate is threefold. First, Ontario law schools have increased the number of law students. All of them, in fact, have boosted their numbers, particularly the University of Ottawa. The number of graduates will increase even further when the new law school at Lakehead University comes on stream.

Second, more and more international law graduates are seeking accreditation in Canada. The University of Toronto has gone as far as creating a special program for international law graduates.

Third, despite the best efforts of the law society, law firms haven’t increased the number of articling positions to keep up with the influx of new graduates.

The law society’s task force on articling has its work cut out for it as it explores its options. That’s where efforts at law school curriculum reform in the United States can have an impact in Canada.

In 2007, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a study on legal education in North America. It found that while law schools do an admirable job of teaching legal theory, they’re not paying enough attention to preparing students for the profession of law in ethics and practical skills.

The Carnegie report recommended an integrated curriculum for law schools. The idea would involve teaching what it calls “the three apprenticeships” of cognitive learning, ethics, and practical skills throughout law school. In a recent speech to the Canadian Bar Association, Governor General David Johnston, a former law dean himself, endorsed the Carnegie report’s approach.

U.S. law schools have taken up the Carnegie report’s recommendations with enthusiasm. For example, Harvard University now offers a problem-solving workshop during first year. The Washington and Lee University School of Law has implemented perhaps the most radical reforms by making third year entirely experiential learning with strategies such as clinics, externships, and simulations.

In Canada, the reaction to Carnegie has been silence. Only Osgoode has taken significant steps towards implementing Carnegie through its announcement that, starting in 2012, students must take an experiential learning course in order to graduate.

I suggest that the articling conundrum in Ontario has a potential solution in the implementation of the Carnegie report in our law schools.

For example, the law society could agree that if law students took a certain number of credits in clinical or other courses that teach ethics or practical skills, they wouldn’t need to article or could have a reduced articling period.

Another option is for law schools to offer a capstone course like those offered by the University of Minnesota, Southwestern Law School, and Duke University School of Law. These intensive courses integrate practical skills with doctrinal learning.

A third option could be a simulation like the one run for Scottish law graduates at the University of Glasgow. For a few months after graduation, law students take part in a virtual law firm in a fictitious town. They go to an office, open files, and carry out transactions or lawsuits on behalf of fictitious clients.

All of these options involve implementing the Carnegie report in one form or another.

I don’t foresee the abolition of articling, at least not in the short term. But these options can be available as an alternative to the traditional articling period. Some students may even prefer them to articling.

There’s no reason why law schools, with the participation of members of the private bar, can’t teach the skills provided by articling. Doing so would create stronger links between the private bar and law schools.

The law society and the law schools need to work together to find a solution. The status quo is not an option.

Doug Ferguson is a lawyer and director of the Community Legal Services Clinic at the University of Western Ontario Faculty of Law.

  • RE: Practical solutions to articling crisis

    Oh, by the way, I would like to see those number about international law graduates who covet those rare articling positions devoted (exclusively) to Canadian law graduates? Because as far as I'm concerned, the overseas-educated law professionals I met at law school, couldn't even get an interview for a mere summer internship, let alone an articling position. Please LSUC, show us those statistics! If you have the least idea of the reality of former judges, lawyers who try to work again as legal professionals in Canada, you wouldn't broadcast such argument with no data to support it. Like I said: just tell us how many international law graduates managed to secure an articling in Ontario over the last 5 years. Most of those people are treated almost like pariahs by the "regular" student body. They don't need that unsubstantiated label of "articling thieves".
  • RE: Practical solutions to articling crisis

    I think everyone in Canada, starting by law schools should stop with this ridiculously linear way of seeing things: Law school, then bar exams, then articling, and if you can't get the latter, it's the end of the road for you. The LSUC allows people with some on-hands legal experience (3 years or something like that) to apply for an exemption of the articling requirement. This is a venue to be explored for and by the new law graduates. Besides, why should a law graduate who managed during her studies to accumulate a lot of legal internships should be put aside for the benefit of a lucky student who did squat during her studies but managed to snatch an articling position? Why does everything have to be so rigid in Canada?
  • partner, Feige Nawrocki LLP

    Julian Nawrocki
    It is becoming apparent that when the Law Society got rid of the Bar Admission Course and retained articling, what they should have done is the reverse. The vast majority of students in my Civ Pro class praised the Bar Admission Course as their first and finest glimpse into practical training. Without that, what level of skills are we foisting on the unsuspecting public?