Time for law schools to face the music

Time for law schools to face the music
Law students awaited the release of the Law Society of Upper Canada task force report on the articling crisis with great anticipation because, after all, the problem directly and immediately affects us.

I’m pleased the law society has recognized the shortage of articling positions and has chosen to address it. The report drew from the submissions of a diverse range of individuals in the legal community and is thorough in scope.

The majority of the articling task force wants to establish a parallel articling process involving co-op placements, termed as a law practice program. The minority would like to do away with articling altogether and create a two- to three-month pre-licensing training program.

These solutions are well reasoned and their enactment falls within the scope of the law society’s powers. That being said, I agree with the minority’s opinion that the creation of a parallel co-op articling program creates a two-tier system of training.

Those students who can’t get articling positions will be forced to pursue LPP training, oftentimes in unpaid positions. With the debt load of students being so high, this doesn’t appear to be a practical or fair solution.

Doing away with articling seems to be too tempting and simple a solution. Articling still has a place. Not only does it provide crucial hands-on training and opportunities for client interaction, but it also allows students to become accustomed to working in an office environment. There is little other than articling that can prepare you for interacting with lawyers and support staff, as well as learning the etiquette of working in a firm or clinic on a day-to-day basis.

For me, however, the biggest problem is that the law society is unable to determine what the role of law schools will be within these proposals, and I believe law schools are at the centre of the problem.

Part of the solution to the articling crisis should be scaling back class sizes at law schools. If there are too many students seeking too few positions, schools ought to admit fewer students. This is not an option the law society investigates because, as it says, it lacks control over the admission numbers at law schools.

It also doesn’t seem to be a solution the law schools are interested in. Class sizes at several schools across Canada are increasing every year, and new law schools are opening up, including Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia and soon Lakehead University in Ontario.

I believe law schools mean well in wanting to increase class sizes. Cynics might suggest they are allowing more students to enter their hallowed halls because they want more tuition dollars. I prefer to think law schools are attempting to increase the diversity of the bar by admitting students from different backgrounds.

But is it not cruel to admit so many new students, let them believe they will become lawyers, and then have them discover after three years they can’t article and therefore can’t become licensed?

This is particularly unjust to students from impoverished backgrounds who have had to scrimp and save for years and now find they are without job prospects.

Because let’s face it, students attend law school to get a job. We all entered expecting to secure a paid articling position. Since articling was deemed a necessary part of the licensing process, we naturally assumed that we would all leave school with a position. But we were wrong.

Another question remains: if this LPP process goes ahead as proposed, who will shoulder the burden of supporting those students in unpaid positions? The law society will not, nor will the law schools. The majority recommends law students with articling positions share their salaries with those in unpaid co-op placements. While those with paid positions certainly must feel sympathy for their unpaid colleagues, it seems a cruel twist of fate that those earning money be asked to pay up, when this is not a problem they created.

In the meantime, law schools continue to admit more students, increase their tuition fees, and we, the debt-addled law students of this country, are the ones who must pay for the solution to the articling crisis. Is this really fair?

I await the response of the law schools to this report. Hopefully, they will do what is fair and scale back their class sizes, and in doing so contribute to solving this problem — because if students are being asked to sacrifice, why shouldn’t they?

Cameron Bryant is a third-year law student at Osgoode Hall Law School.

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