As the first ever batch of students move into the placement phase of the English-version of the Law Practice Program, being run by Ryerson University, some parties are crying foul.
In a letter sent to the Law Society of Upper Canada Treasurer Janet Minor on Jan. 12, the Law Students Society of Ontario outlined its concerns regarding the program thus far.
The LSSO has been monitoring the program for a while, says Doug Judson, the society’s president. The LSSO has had a few exchanges with the law society on the topic — Judson notes the law society has always been open to discussion and the LSSO’s concerns — but with current students transferring to the practical learning side, it was time for an update, he explains.
“We received a number of comments from law students and the current LPP cohort and wanted to relay their concerns in a coherent fashion.”
Though the letter states: “if the LPP is to continue, we request that the Law Society institute a requirement for all work placements to be reasonably compensated,” Judson says the issue isn’t really as simple as just wanting to be paid.
“They’re concerned not that it’s unpaid but that they’re entering the stream with a significant amount of debt and the way it’s currently set up they don’t find out about remuneration until several months into the program when they’re already committed,” says Judson.
“They’re concerned with where that puts them in regards to professional and financial wellbeing.”
The letter warns against “the coercibility of indebted students with no alternatives to secure their licensing.”
But not all LPP students feel the same way. Maanas Rautela chose the LPP despite being offered a paid articling position because he felt it offered a wider variety and was worth the risk of an unpaid placement.
“In some articling places, some friends I know are only doing research on small portions and didn’t know the whole case,” he says. “It depends on the firm you end up with. I got practical experience with different areas of law I feel I wouldn’t have otherwise, and the placement adds to it.”
Rautela is currently completing his LPP placement at a labour and employment boutique firm on Bay Street, being paid the same as articling students. He says he only knows one person in the program not being paid — most are getting something, if only a small stipend.
Matthew Hopkins, also currently in the first LPP cohort, says the real problem is the program is set up outside of any financial assistance structures, such as OSAP.
What it comes down to, says Hopkins, is being able to pay the rent and buy groceries while doing the LPP.
“My beef is . . . it’s impossible to have paid employment,” he says.
Rautela agrees it is an intense program, and squeezing a paying job in would be “onerous.”
“I understand it’s tough, having student loans, to continue going eight months without a paycheque, but this is what you’ve signed up for,” Rautela says.
While he is happy to have something paid, in the “worst case scenario” it was only four months and he could have gotten by, he says.
The argument is many can’t get by, or really struggle trying to do so and have no recourse.
In a statement, Minor points out the LSUC has a repayable allowance program that assists those who “demonstrate need and have exhausted all other sources of funds.”
Minor also mentions the $1-million contribution from Ontario lawyers put against the licensing cost for all current LPP and articling candidates.
“The present fee is comparable to the 2005 fee for the previous Bar Admission Course — taking inflation and the cost of living into account,” she says.
Hopkins has a different solution: make the Lakehead model the standard, an idea he says the LSSO letter spoke to as well. He calls the Lakehead approach — where training and work placements are integrated into the three-year program, the idea being students can then practise immediately after graduation and passing the bar exam — more practical and in the end may be the better answer to the articling crisis.
“The more I talk to people, the more the Lakehead model makes sense to us — it addresses the funding issue by folding it into law school so you’re covered under OSAP,” says Hopkins.
He points out this move would also take care of a lot of the costs passed on to LSUC members who “probably aren’t happy with the rate hikes, and I think we’re hearing that as well,” he adds.
Rautela wouldn’t be opposed to more financing to cover the cost. He says it would relieve the financial burden and allow students to focus on the intensive program without scrambling to keep up with payments or worrying about burdening others, such as their parents or a spouse. He attributes the issues as “growing pains” for the new program and feels the focus has been on the negative.
“For me, so far, so good,” he says. “I’m pretty happy with how the program came through for me.”
But as the LSSO’s letter states, Rautela’s experience isn’t every LPP student’s journey. They have no choice but to follow through with whatever placement they can get, paid or not, able to sustain themselves or not, in order to complete their licensing requirements.
“We as young people coming into the profession want to see a smarter approach to how we are licensed and how our skills are assessed,” Judson says.
“Right now we aren’t really aligned properly and that’s what’s causing a lot of problems. The law society is struggling to navigate a web that’s not entirely their making. It’s a bigger picture issue about what the licensing process looks like.”
Minor says the LSUC “recognizes and understands” the concerns put forth in the LSSO’s letter. The regulatory body’s first priority is a fair and accessible system that makes it possible for all qualified licensing candidates to acquire the necessary skills to become lawyers, she says.
“We continue to strongly advocate for firms and organizations to pay all their licensing candidates — both those enrolled in the LPP and those completing the articling program,” the statement says.
“As part of our evaluation of the pilot, the issue of remuneration will continue to be assessed.”
Update Jan. 27: LSUC Treasurer Janet Minor responds to the LSSO. Read the response here.