How it feels to be a guinea pig

Graduating from law school in 2014, I will be part of the experimental cohort of law students divided between the traditional articling term and the law practice program. My peers and I are sitting in the eye of the storm called the articling crisis that has received so much attention in recent months.

Since Oct. 25, 2012, when the Law Society of Upper Canada’s articling task force introduced its final report to Convocation, law deans, legal practitioners, benchers, and law professors have published mountains of articles and blog posts about this issue. However, there has been little public comment by law students themselves (at least from what I have read).

First, I must state that student governments and organizations across the province were admirably active in voicing their concerns to the LSUC prior to Nov. 22 when a decision about the articling alternatives was made. The silence I refer to is in the public arena, beyond the walls of law schools and law societies. Which is funny since within law schools, we have been bubbling with discussion and emotion regarding the effects of the decision and the preamble leading up to it.

When I began studying for the LSAT a few years ago, I was confident I would find a job if I chose to go to law school. “Guarantee” is a strong word, but I felt like that was almost what I had. I rationalized the payment of an exorbitant amount of money and another three years of study with the idea this was an investment — I could begin to reap the benefits immediately after graduation.

However, since the law society’s decision in November, I have felt an increase in nervousness and pressure among the student body. The sense of confidence is no longer. Truth be told, these sentiments were present before the decision was made. It was very clear from Day 1 of first year that our articling prospects were becoming more dismal. But I think law students were hopeful the articling task force would alleviate that pressure.

In fact, the LPP alternative has only exacerbated those negative feelings. Now we know all of us have a way to become licensed in Ontario, but the weight is far from off our shoulders. Students who are considering this option face another year of staggering debt. This is certainly one of my biggest concerns. I’m not sure how I would afford another year like this.

And then there’s the fear that the impression of “choosing” the LPP will affect job prospects in the future. I use the word “choosing” with care because I don’t think it will be a wilful choice for many law students. For a large portion of people who complete the LPP, I suspect it will be something they must do because their legal fields of interest are dominated by smaller firms that don’t have the resources to offer summer positions and/or articling jobs. That, and employer bias, will have a literal effect on who gets the available jobs and who doesn’t.

Division within the student body is another real impact of the articling decision. I dislike perpetuating the dichotomy of corporate Bay Street lawyers versus the rest of the legal profession, but this is one case where such a division has some basis in reality. Students who have secured 2L summer jobs at larger firms are not (as) concerned about their articling options because, in most cases, this is a done deal. However, for other students (myself being one of them), this is not so.

The division I speak of isn’t always explicit nor is it necessarily nasty, but I’ve noticed a difference with the level of concern students have about the articling crisis and this new proposal.

In some instances, I have noted a dismissive attitude from those with secured spots. I have heard some people talk about the articling issue as one of agency: if you don’t get a job, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. I stress some, and not all, because this is really just anecdotal. Yet it’s an impression that is real and I don’t think I’m alone in sensing it.

The last thing we need in law school is greater competition or division among our peers, especially at a time of tension like this. I stand by my first article calling for more collaboration and less competition in law school. Jan Weir made this very same point in his recent Canadian Lawyer article.

Returning to the notion of agency, I should acknowledge we as law students do have a role to play in finding and securing articling jobs. I am not advocating we should expect our futures to be handed to us on a silver platter. Whether it’s Bay Street or Main Street, we have to hustle. And we are. That’s the point: it’s still not enough.

The fact remains there simply aren’t enough articling positions to go around. And this has a disproportionate effect on law students from certain backgrounds (i.e. racialized students, mature students) and those with certain interests.

In sum, the effect on us guinea pigs is tangible and significant. The pressure to find a job and pay off our debts has increased, not diminished, as has the division among students. It hasn’t made law school unbearable, nor has it made enemies, but it is still cause for concern. I hope the law student body can find common ground to further challenge this issue because I believe we are far from a resolution.

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