Profession needs to create opportunities for young lawyers

Fernando Garcia
I often hear that millennials are lazy, they want too much too fast, and that they are unwilling to work for their success. I hear this on the street, on the radio, I read it online, and I hear it at social events.

However, based on my experience, this is absolutely false and, if anything, insulting when directed toward students in or graduating from our law schools today. They have done all we have asked of them.
We have asked them to do well in high school, get into a good university, and then, if they find success in these, take the next step and get a law degree and become a lawyer. Now, saddled with debts sometimes into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the opportunity cost of so many years of foregone employment, they seek an articling position and they are forced into a fierce struggle for low-paying positions in law firms.

Many must end up volunteering just to meet this final requirement, further increasing their debt levels. If lucky and they obtain an articling position (paid or unpaid) and are called to the bar, many — especially in Toronto and Vancouver — then struggle to find work while facing record high-property costs. Their dreams and aspirations of a career in law and home ownership seem to be just that — dreams. But they have done all we have asked of them. We as a profession have failed them.

This should not be taken in any way to discourage anyone who is passionate about the study and practice of law from going to law school. However, he or she must be mindful that the opportunities to become a lawyer in the ivory towers of big cities may not be feasible. A law degree opens up many different options, such as working in-house, in a compliance function, human resources, labour relations, consulting, etc.  But we as a profession must also make this transition easier. We must work to provide opportunities so that those who have invested in us are able to put their learning into practice. Here are just a few ideas to make sure that we can assist those graduating from law schools:

•    As proposed by Jim Middlemiss in his article “It’s time to scrap articling”, maybe the best solution is to eliminate articling. Clearly, there are issues with placement availability. The quality of postings is often questionable, and as he notes, “It’s often minorities and foreign-trained lawyers left in the cold.” We could replace articling with a U.S.-style system where students are licensed to practice upon graduation once they pass the state bar exams.

•    If we keep articling, I would recommend that the Law Practice Program be extended, and it should become not the alternative to traditional articling but rather the actual formal articling process. Those fortunate enough to find articling placements in the major law firms should be allowed to pursue that alternative approach, but it will not be considered the mainstream. That being said, I would make the LPP experience/work placement eight months. For those who accept an unpaid placement, maybe we should consider allowing the Ontario Student Assistance Program to be a support during this placement, as it is contributing to their education. 

•    If all considerations are on the table and we are keeping articling, we should consider having articling replace the third year of law school.

•    Governments need to step up. While I applaud the intent, rather than proposing free education in Ontario for those under a certain income bracket — which ignores the needs of a large middle class that cannot assist in paying for its children’s education — we should provide one year exemption from income tax payments for students for every year of full-time university study. This will help alleviate the financial burdens of students and allow them to offset the opportunity cost of their investment, which we have always told them is an investment to increase the skills and competitiveness of our cities, provinces, and country.  

You may not agree with my proposals, but we need to put ideas on the table and re-think the status quo, which is not working. That being said, what advice can I give those looking today for articling roles?

•    Network, network, network. Don’t be shy. You invested in your career and studies — now make the most of it. Feel proud of your accomplishments and market yourself. Reach out to lawyers at the firms you may want to article at, reach out to in-house counsel, reach out to community organizations you may want to work with. Be visible and let them know what you want and what you can do for them!

•    Consider whether you really want to practice law at a law firm. Either way, apply, apply, apply to as many positions (law firms, in-house, government agencies, labour unions, not-for-profits) as you think necessary, as long as you think there is some value in you articling there. At worst, it is a step you must complete, so do it and try to make the most of it. See Alan Ritchie’s article where he argues that people are increasingly going in-house after articles.

•    Consider alternatives such as the LPP program in Ontario. With the right placement, you will learn as much if not more than you would at a law firm.

Finally, but most importantly, do not get discouraged. Many of those practicing today had it much easier than you do today. It was easier for us to get into law school, it was much less expensive to study, and there were numerous articling and associate roles available for us once law school was complete. We have let you down. It won’t be easy, but know that there are many of us concerned about you, supporting you, trying to fix the system, and always willing to lend a hand.

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