Is an end to Ontario’s articling crisis near?

Is an end to Ontario’s articling crisis near?
The articling crisis in Ontario may soon come to an end if proposed solutions to resolve the shortage of articling placements get the green light from the Law Society of Upper Canada.
The LSUC articling task force’s Dec. 9, 2011 consultation report justifies the traditional articling requirement of the licensing process as, among other things, an opportunity for practical experience in the field and a means of mentoring law school graduates. However, it acknowledges that as important as articling is for developing the competence of lawyers, the requirement to article must not create unfair barriers to licensing.

The task force notes that most articling placements are in large cities. In fact, 65 per cent of all articling positions are in Toronto. Small firms and sole practitioners play a relatively small role in the articling system. Accordingly, the task force concludes that it is unrealistic to expect that an increase in hiring at small firms and by sole practitioners will solve the current dilemma.

The task force suggests five potential avenues that could be pursued to address the articling crisis:

1. The status quo

This option would maintain the status quo and choose not to change the current articling process. Under this system, the market is to prevail; economic forces would continue to govern decisions regarding hiring and salary. The law society would caution potential law school applicants that they may not find articling placements — a practice which, according to media reports, many unemployed law students in the United States wish was in place prior to them undertaking a legal education. For those of you presently without an articling position and saddled with debt, it is understandable if this option does not sit well with you. As is the case in other markets, intervention by the regulator is necessary to mediate harsh outcomes.

2. The status quo with quality assurance improvements

This option suggests continuing the status quo, but also applying quality control benchmarks against which every articling student’s competence would be evaluated. My reservations with this option are similar to those in the first option. In addition, while uniform quality control benchmarks may facilitate the development of one’s competence and professional conduct, few firms may be willing to implement this option.

3. The replacement of a pre-licensing transition requirement with a post-licensing transition requirement

This would replace articling with a requirement to complete specific transitional training after becoming licensed, coupled with completion of the licensing exams. It is unclear whether all applicants would be required to complete the post-licensing transition requirement, as it appears that this training would be geared towards the challenges of practising at a small firm or as a sole practitioner.

4. A choice of an “after law school” or “during law school” model

This would give students the choice between articling or completing a practical legal training course requirement. Students who opt for the PLTC would complete it either post-graduation or during law school. Regardless of whether law students choose to article or do a PLTC, they would have to satisfy the standards set by the law society. While this option would remove the barrier that the articling requirement presents, my concern is that articling students will be paid for their training while PLTC students will have to pay an estimated $7,600 or more. In addition, PLTC students might not get paid for the placement component of the course.

Notwithstanding those drawbacks, from my own challenges with finding an articling placement, I empathize with students who would rather pay the extra tuition and become licensed as opposed to waiting another year to land a position or potentially not getting an articling placement at all.

5. Only a practical legal training course

This last option is to abolish articling and impose mandatory PLTC for all applicants. In my opinion, this is an extreme and worrisome proposition. Everyone would receive the same post-law school training, but there would be no choice in the matter and more debt would be accrued. No one would have the unparalleled opportunity to gain practical experience in a firm setting, which is only possible through articling. While PLTC would certainly level the playing field, it should be treated as a temporary solution to the articling shortage.

It is comforting to see that a variety of well-researched options have been proposed by the task force. The next step is for members of the legal profession to weigh in as the task force is currently seeking feedback from the legal community on the proposed options. The deadline for all submissions is March 15, 2012.

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