Amid a consultation process to develop possible alternatives to articling, the Law Society of Ontario is considering whether to change the licensing procedure for law school graduates, including an option to eliminate articling.
Between April and June 2017, the LSO led a “dialogue on licensing” with the legal community. About 300 lawyers, law graduates and law students as well as 33 organizations were consulted, according to the LSO’s Professional Development and Competence Committee’s Lawyer Licensing Consultation paper, which will be presented to Convocation May 24.
From the students, the committee heard about overwhelming debt, expensive licensing fees and the suggestion that articling be replaced by a standardized training course. Some lamented unpaid articles or work placements they endured and that they were often tasked with jobs unrelated to the development of legal skills. Others told the LSO that articling should be maintained for the singular learning experience it provides.
“We've had a lot of input through the dialogue on licensing and they're very interested in jobs and making sure they get access to the job market. They're very concerned about debt load and I think they're looking for alternatives to the traditional structure,” says Peter Wardle, chairman of the committee and associate counsel at Singleton Urquhart Reynolds Vogel LLP.
To gain the transitional training needed to be licensed, prospective lawyers can article for a law firm or complete the Law Practice Program, a 17-week training course followed by a work placement.
Through the consultation process, the committee spotted weak spots in the current transitional training model and developed four options to address the issues they found.
One issue was the scarcity of articling positions. Only 10 per cent of Ontario law firms offer articling positions, while the number of graduates from Ontario law programs rose by 60 per cent from 2007 to 2012, according to the committee’s paper.
Globalization has also added to the strain on the market for potential licensees. Thirty per cent of new registrants in the last five years attended law school outside of Canada. Those candidates need to be verified by the National Committee on Accreditation, which has seen a 250-per-cent increase in the number of applicants in the last 10 years.
Wardle says the influx of law grads not able to find enough articling positions is a problem that will persist.
“I wouldn't describe it as severe, but it's now a permanent problem,” he says. “The number of international candidates coming into our system is increasing and it's showing no signs of slowing down. So, it's going to continue to put pressure on our licensing system as we go forward.”
The committee’s paper states that, in Ontario, between 200 and 300 candidates do not find an articling position in time for September, when articling season begins.
“I know many of my colleagues were not so fortunate to secure an articling position, and the reality is that there are more law school graduates than there are available work positions,” says Blake Bochinski, who just finished his third year of law school at the University of Ottawa.
The committee came up with four options for which they are now seeking feedback. The first option is that no change be made to the current transitional training programs but that they would be “continuously adjusted to accommodate new developments.”
The second option retains the current model but requires that articling students be paid the minimum wage, greater oversight of the employers providing the articles and work placements, and the barrister and solicitor exams would come before the transitional training with a new “skills examination” pre-licensing, the paper states.
In what the committee calls “examination-based licensing,” the third proposition is an elimination of transitional training. Those who land in a firm with six or more lawyers and those who do not end up practising law after their call will require no additional steps, but those in a small firm or practising as sole practitioners will be obligated to take a “practice essentials course” and be subject to audit “within their first few years of practice,” according to the paper.
Axing the evaluation that comes with articling for lawyers entering larger firms rests on the idea that they will be adequately trained by their colleagues.
“We also know that our regulatory risk is primarily with sole practitioners and those practicing in a small firm environment,” says Wardle. “This model essentially says if you're going to go into practice and you're going to practice in a firm of more than five licensees we're assuming that you will get all the training that you need from your employer.”
The fourth option is LPP for all candidates. Instead of articling, law grads would all complete the LPP, without the work placement component, and then pass the barrister and solicitor exams and the new skills examination.
Wardle says the LPP has not had the appeal that was expected, while Bochinski says the program has a stigma among students.
“I, personally, had mixed feelings about the law practice program in law school. You were taught to be fearful of the LPP. For most students, if they are enrolled in this program, it usually means that they were unsuccessful in securing an articling position,” he says. “Simply put, there is a stigma associated with the LPP. Many students are actually reluctant to be there.”
Bochinski says the stigma is unnecessary, as the LPP is a great program that provides a more consistent education and is more systematic than articling. He says law schools should implement it into the final year of law school.
A common complaint the committee heard from law students was the level of debt students acquire while in school, the steep cost of licensing and the fact that many are not paid during their articles or work placement. About 85 per cent of respondents said they had a debt of at least $40,000 or more.
The committee’s paper says that, currently, LSO licensing fees are $4,710.
Bochinski says the high debt levels lead students to go for jobs they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in, if not to take a bigger piece out of their debt.
“Some people have that mentality that they need to get the highest-paying job possible. So I know that some of my colleagues that even if they don't like big law, even if they don't want to work in a big law firm, they deliberately chose to obtain an articling position with a bigger law firm,” he says.
Wardle says the LSO will conduct focus groups, take written submissions and continue consultations with the legal community until the end of October.
Editor's note: May 23, 2018. Story updated to reflect that the fourth option outlined above (LPP for call candidates) does not in fact include a work placement component.