Neither apples nor oranges are working

Neither apples nor oranges are working
The 2014-15 licensing year was marked by robust debate around the future of articling in Ontario as the Law Society of Upper Canada rolled out its three-year pilot project known as the Law Practice Program.

I was surprised to find myself in the midst of that debate when I was asked to write a series of articles for Canadian Lawyer 4Students and I am grateful for the opportunity to share my journey with you, the readers. I am also grateful now for the opportunity to tell you how this particular story ends.

When I began my journey with the LPP, I was nervous because opponents of the program had fairly aggressively attacked it. Opponents said LPP graduates would be stigmatized for having gone through the LPP rather than the traditional articling route.

They said it was unethical to put licensees in a position of having to take unpaid or underpaid work placements in order to obtain a licence, with no financial safety net. They said that you just can’t compare 10 months of hands-on training with the traditional stream to four months of hands-on training, even with an additional four-month academic portion.

The proponents of the LPP argued that the stigma wouldn’t hold, that approximately two-thirds of the placements were paid, and that the academic portion would give LPP graduates a leg up on their competitors in the job market.

Unfortunately, both warring factions missed the mark. The question should not have been whether the LPP is worthy or unworthy. The question should have been what it means to receive a proper legal education so the LSUC’s licensing standards are justifiably met.

We should have gone back to basics to ask what academic skills and what practical skills a licensee should have before being given a licence.

The difficulty in comparing the two experiences is that neither one is truly standardized. There will be LPP students who gained excellent training from skilled lawyers who took every opportunity to build competence. There will also be LPP students kept in a cubicle and made to do work that does little to prepare them to practise law.

The same is true for those going through the traditional articling process. If you’ve gone through it, you’ve heard good stories and bad stories.

To make this about the LPP versus traditional articling is to miss the point entirely. The difficult conclusion I’ve reached here is that the articling process remains broken and it can’t be solved by the LPP because the same challenges that plagued the traditional stream are now challenging the LPP.

First, the financial challenge is growing. Law society members do not want to subsidize the training of an unlimited number of licensees. Licensees, meanwhile, should not be subjected to a means-test for entry to the legal profession.

New law schools are opening and foreign schools are exclusively teaching Canadian law to play the system, graduating students for jobs that don’t exist. There is, simply, too much money clouding this discussion and I believe it’s to the detriment of us all. We need to take this seriously now, not later.

Second, the question of competency continues to challenge us. If we accept that neither stream is standardized sufficiently to guarantee competency and we acknowledge that law schools are not teaching the practical skills licensees need to enter the profession immediately following law school, then how are we guaranteeing licensees are competent to practise law?

I don’t think we can make that guarantee as things stand now.

The truth is that the system itself is broken and the LPP in its current form won’t solve the problem.

I do think the LPP is on the right track, though. Personally, I feel we need to follow Lakehead University’s lead and make practical learning part of the law school experience so articling is no longer needed. We need to graduate students with the skills they need to earn entry-level, junior associate positions where they can continue to hone their skills while being properly compensated for the work they do.

I truly believe this can be accomplished within a three-year JD program that incorporates some of the practical learning principles we see in the LPP. I think this model will be more cost effective for licensees and for the law society and its members. And it won’t preclude firms from going through the same recruiting process for new talent. This will allow universities to pay attention to practice areas that are under-serviced by the current system, such as family, criminal, and aboriginal law.

I know the discussion will continue.

As for me, my experience was a bit of a mixed bag. The financial challenges of going through the LPP were quite severe. For the first time, I had to borrow money from friends just to buy groceries. That wasn’t a great feeling.

Oddly enough, in a strange twist of fate, the financial challenges were so extreme that I was able to qualify for an early withdrawal of the pension I earned as a member of the Canadian Forces, which returned me to stable financial footing.

As for the LPP itself, I think the academic portion is off to a solid start, though it still needs to tighten up with more robust oversight from experts in the various fields of law who can enhance the experience and increase the workload.

The work placement portion, for me, was a good learning experience, though I must acknowledge that the stigma of being part of the LPP was always there even as I received great reviews for my work.

That said, I was paid a good wage and worked mainly on litigation files. I was able to see what I liked and didn’t like and confirmed what I had suspected; I really need to see my clients and feel like I’m making a difference in their lives to be happy at work. I felt that way while working at Community Legal Services while attending Western Law.

I have to give credit to the LPP too. I look back to the academic portion where a mock family law matter was given to us. The actress who played my client was superb and every time I met with her, I was reminded how much more satisfying it is for me to stand with a person going through their darkest hour than to face, for example, a 12-inch thick file full of road maintenance records. But hey! That’s just my personal preference and every experience is a learning opportunity that can be applied to future work.

So how did I find my happy ending? What? You weren’t sure there would be a happy ending? Of course there’s a happy ending! How could I not leave you with a happy ending? Remember, I ended my first article for this magazine by saying that this generation of lawyers is going to have a harder path than some who came before but that the future is as bright as we choose to make it.

I then said that I’ve seized my opportunity. That’s exactly what I did by buckling down and taking on the LPP. Just when things seemed bleakest, I received a tweet — yes, a tweet — from an amazing young lawyer in Barrie, Ont., who read some of my previous articles and thought enough of me to introduce me to a friend of hers who shared my interests. As fate would have it, we hit it off. I found the opportunity I needed!

In the coming months, with the support of great mentors, colleagues, and friends, I will be opening Matt Hopkins Law in Barrie, practising primarily in criminal and family law. I’m going home. I’ve seized my opportunity. This marks the end of the beginning, and folks, the future is bright.

Matt Hopkins has just completed the first ever Law Practice Program at Ryerson University and is setting up a practice in Barrie, Ont.

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