“The articling task force was set up in response to a perceived and actual shortage of articling positions in Ontario,” explained Suzanne Bouclin, who moderated the Oct. 26 panel discussion. “[T]he critical problem is less a shortage of articling positions, but specifically articling positions in career paths more oriented towards social justice.”
The shortage described by Bouclin was a key finding in a law society report published in May. It showed that 12.1 per cent of those seeking articles in the 2010-11 licensing year went unplaced, a big jump from a rate of 5.8 per cent three years ago.
University of Ottawa law professor David Wiseman said he sees the shortage as related to “the other crisis” in articling: a distribution of articling positions that is not conducive to social justice.
The task force, he suggested, is an opportunity to “put access to justice on the table.”
He cited the Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project, which found that 35 per cent of low- and middle-income Ontarians — those with incomes of $75,000 per year or less — reported having a civil legal problem in the past three years.
Of the two-thirds who sought legal assistance, 15 per cent faced problems with either the cost of legal services or not qualifying for legal aid. The remaining one-third did not seek legal assistance due to perceived financial barriers.
Wiseman said the civil legal problems these Ontarians contend with are mostly in areas like family, housing, and real estate.
“Guess who does most of this work in Ontario for low- and middle-income people?” he said. “Sole practitioners, small firm lawyers, and legal clinics that have a civil component.”
Currently, however, 61 per cent of articling positions are concentrated in medium- and large-size firms.
“The real problem is that there aren’t articling positions or career pathways that move people into meeting these needs,” said Wiseman, noting that while sole practitioners and small firms comprise 52 per cent of all lawyers in the province, these workplaces are underrepresented when it comes to offering articling positions.
“Clearly, there is a disproportion in where the articling is,” he said.
The panel suggested more creative strategies are needed to overcome the financial and resource barriers faced by sole practitioners and small firms in terms of their ability to provide articling opportunities.
Even students who manage to land an articling position in a social justice stream are discovering the decision about whether or not to take the placement can be a tough choice to make.
Mikaila Greene, a third-year law student at the University of Ottawa, says she was ecstatic when the small progressive firm where she worked this past summer offered her an articling position.
“The firm had a clear access-to-justice mandate,” she says. “I was really delighted to be working there. This is why I came to law school.”
However, Greene’s law degree has left her significantly in debt, and by accepting what she calls her “ideal” articling position, she would be dramatically reducing her capacity to pay it back.
“At the small firm I work at, we represent marginalized communities,” she says. “Our rate has to be significantly lower as a mechanism of access to justice.”
After mulling over the decision and weighing the potential repercussions, Greene accepted the placement. She emphasized that although she eventually took these articles, many others have no choice but to turn these kinds of opportunities down.
Greene remains concerned that students who seek careers in social justice are placed in a precarious financial position while those who land articles in large firms on Bay Street are much better off.
“I’m going to be making less than half of what they’re making during articling,” she said, noting that her position does not come with health benefits nor are her bar admission fees covered. “I’m going to have to go farther into debt to pay for access to my profession.
“To make matters worse, there’s a lack of debt-relief options,” said Greene. “There’s not enough to help students who wish to help others.”
The final report of the articling task force is due out in June 2012.
Devanne O'Brien is a second-year law student at the University of Ottawa.