Should articling be scrapped?

A shortage of positions in Ontario forces a reevaluation


Mezciems (Blair Gable)

From the Maclean’s Professional Schools Issue.

Mathew Mezciems thought he was doing everything right. He got into one of the country’s premier law schools and set his sights on extracurricular activities that would set him up for a job on graduation. Big firms look for leaders—or so goes the conventional wisdom. So at the end of his first year at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., Mezciems ran for a junior position on the law students’ society, and won. The following year, his peers elected him president.

The job consumed a surprising amount of time. “There are meetings during the week with faculty,” says the 27-year-old, “and office hours where students can come and talk to you.” By the end of his second year, his grades had slipped into the Bs, and Mezciems found himself without one of the all-important summer student positions that serve as entryways to articling. After graduating this spring, he still couldn’t find an articling job—a predicament that not long ago would have been unthinkable for such a prominent student. “I’m trying not to be worried,” he said last June from his home outside Kingston, the strain audible in his voice. “You have those moments of panic, but I’m trying to stay positive and not get too overwhelmed.”

Mezciems might have felt left behind, but he’s in good company. As many as 15 per cent of Ontario’s roughly 1,750 law graduates may fall victim this year to an articling shortage in the province that is having a ripple effect for firms and students across the country. As recently as four years ago, more than 94 per cent of Ontario’s law grads were able to land the 10-month apprenticeships, which are required to get a licence to practise, and often led to positions as associates at the same firms. Those halcyon days are over, as students jockey frantically for coveted spots, and cases like Mezciems’s multiply. In a 2009 survey, only 661 of 7,749 firms contacted said they were offering articling placements, and more than two-thirds of those were located in Toronto and Ottawa. At last count, more than one in 10 of that year’s law graduates had not yet landed articling jobs.

The province does not yet face the crisis seen in the U.S., where some 40 per cent of last year’s law graduates couldn’t find work in their profession. And other provinces don’t seem to be experiencing quite the same problem. Alberta and B.C., for instance, expect to place more than 90 per cent of this year’s graduates.

Still, the shortage has drawn scrutiny to a centuries-old rite of passage that Canada’s legal community inherited from its British forebears. Critics say that the articling requirement now blocks graduates from working, while driving up the cost of legal services by limiting the number of lawyers entering the profession. For students, it stokes more pressing concerns: tuition at the best law schools now ranges between $14,000 and $28,000 a year, meaning many emerge with six-figure debt when money owed from their undergraduate years is factored in. “A lot of us need to go to work right away after graduating, or we’re headed for financial ruin,” lamented one second-year law student, who asked that her name not be used. “Until you find a job, it can feel like the deck’s stacked against you.”

Stacked enough that the folks who license lawyers in Ontario are considering radical alternatives. Last winter, the Law Society of Upper Canada struck a task force to look into scrapping articles in favour of a more accessible requirement, such as a practical training course or a post-graduate transition requirement. Under the latter scenario, graduates who pass a bar exam would then have a certain period to show they’ve been working as lawyers to keep their licences.

About the only option not on the table is dumping articling altogether in favour of a U.S.-style system, where students are licensed to practise upon graduation once they pass the state bar exams. “No matter how the ultimate recommendations are framed, they will include some form of transitional training and measurable standards,” says Thomas Conway, the law society’s treasurer, in an email. The panel’s final report is expected this fall, at which point the law society will decide what, if anything, it plans to do.

A solution won’t come easily, in part because no one wants to take ownership of the problem. While the number of articling positions has grown more slowly over the last decade than the number of graduates, law firms bristle at the suggestion they’re shirking their responsibility to the profession by shutting students out. “I don’t think it’s our responsibility to create any more [positions] than we already do,” says Deborah Dalfen, in charge of recruitment for the Bay Street heavyweight Torys LLP, which hires about 25 articling students per year. “If we were to hire students we don’t intend to bring on as associates, then what? They can’t find a job.”

Law schools, meanwhile, brush aside criticism that they’ve created an oversupply of law grads by ramping up admissions. Since 2008, the number of people seeking licences each year in the province has grown from 1,400 to 1,767, and at least part of the growth can be placed at the feet of the University of Ottawa, which has increased its output of law grads by more than a third over the past 10 years, to 295. But Bruce Feldthusen, U of O’s dean of law, makes no apologies, noting that some of his graduates do their articles in Quebec, while arguing the demand for legal professionals in Ontario is self-evident. “There’s a huge number of people who couldn’t possibly afford a lawyer today because the supply is so tight and the prices have gone up,” he says. “Look, we’ve got a lot of highly qualified kids who want to work, and a lot of middle-class Ontarians who want to hire them at a reasonable rate. Those students can’t get into the bar because of the articling barrier.”

One of the few areas of agreement: students coming from abroad represent a sizable share of the glut. In 2006, the provincial government passed legislation to ensure overseas applicants get fair consideration. More than luring foreign-educated professionals to Canada, the rules enticed overseas universities to cater to law students hoping to work in this country. (One, Bond University in Queensland, Australia, created a degree program in Canadian law that has become popular with Canadians who didn’t get into or didn’t want to go to law school at home; each year, it pumps out about 60 Canadian graduates, most of whom seek work in this country). By 2011, the number of internationally educated students seeking licences to practise in Ontario had more than tripled, to 272. As of October, 43 had failed to find articling jobs.

The effect has been to put firms squarely in the driver’s seat of the recruiting process. To land an articling placement with a major firm, candidates typically must first get a summer student job with those organizations following their second year. The regimen begins with on-campus interviews—a kind of speeddating where representatives from major firms, as well as government agencies, set up an archipelago of desks in university conference rooms and interview each candidate for 17 minutes or less. “You go around the room with 300 other stressed-out law students,” says Lindsay Traves, a second-year student at the University of Windsor. “You sit down, they ask you maybe three questions. Some will literally just say, ‘go,’ and you have to talk for six minutes. Then a bell rings and you go to the next one.”

Those lucky enough to find jobs stress the importance of a fast academic start. “Get good grades in your first year of law,” says Rob Thomson, a Queen’s student heading into his third year, who is working this summer in the Crown prosecutors’ office in Ottawa. Those are the grades firms use to assess students for second-year summer positions, Thomson notes, and “summer positions lead to articling positions. You need that momentum coming out of first year.”

Some students resort to cold-calling smaller firms, a method that in today’s fragile economy can yield unpleasant results. Kenneth Bandeira, another Windsor student entering third year, recalls his testy email exchange with the sole practitioner in a small Ontario town. “You sound quite frankly like you’re on a fishing expedition,” snapped the veteran lawyer in response to Bandeira’s polite query. “I do not hire articling students and never have.”

Troubled as Ontario students are getting, law society officials from other provinces say surprisingly few have bolted for greener pastures. Those jurisdictions are closely watching events in Ontario, because a prolonged shortage of positions could result in an outflow of graduates from central Canada—and because any change to the Law Society of Upper Canada’s articling system will affect them. Under an interprovincial agreement, provinces and territories recognize each other’s legal credentials. The idea is to allow lawyers to move with ease between jurisdictions, notes Steve Raby, president of the Law Society of Alberta, “but if the articling regime becomes markedly different in one province than the rest, that’s a concern.”

As for Mezciems, he’s not about to play the stoic, putting on hold his dream of working in sports and entertainment law while hoping against odds that an articling job will surface in Ontario. Last month, still without a job, he enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, which offers a master’s program in the field, and lit out to the U.S. west coast. Where the degree will lead, he’s not sure. But it beats waiting by the phone back home in Kingston. “Sometimes you end up in a situation you didn’t expect, but that ends up being perfect for you,” he says. “These things have a way of working themselves out.”


Should articling be scrapped?

  1. Let me share my own story which indicates that scrapping articling won’t necessarily solve the problem. I recently graduated and articled with a top-tier intellectual property firm in Vancouver. Everything was going according to plan: I gained great experience, had very positive feedback on my work product, and was told I was universally well-liked. Then I was told the feeble economy in Europe and the USA meant a serious downturn in work from foreign associates and there was simply not enough work to support me. While I was allowed to complete my articles and got called to the BC bar, I and a junior associate were let go. I’ve now been searching for work for about 7 months and haven’t had any serious interest. The general comment from firms is that while they love my credentials (JD and a PhD in biochem) and articling experience, they are either suffering the same downturn in work or are looking for experienced lawyers with several years behind them. I’ve searched in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Calgary, but the story is always the same: Firms look after their own articling students first and once you’re out of the queue it’s impossible to re-enter unless the economy picks up. I’ve had conversations with California firms too, but they appear even worse off. Trust me, it’s tough out there, even being called to the bar. While I can technically work as a sole practitioner, it’s nearly impossible to persuade clients in my field to take a chance on a new call. The story is the same with in-house counsel positions: companies want experienced lawyers. I know everything will work out eventually, but the view is bleak from where I sit.

  2. I was called the Ontario Bar in 2011. I have to say that the number of graduates from foreign law schools is starting to create problems for Canadian law school graduates. Students attending overseas law schools like Bond University (which has effectively become another Canadian law school) are admitted to those overseas schools without having to take the LSAT, and are often admitted with very weak undergraduate grades. In other words, if your grades and LSATS are not good enough for Canadian law schools, you can get in the “back door” by attending an overseas school. Once they graduate from Bond or any other overseas institution, they come back to Ontario, or other Canadian provinces, and are fighting over articling jobs with graduates from Canadian schools. Canadian law schools have much more stringent admission standards than a school like Bond in Australia. Canadian law societies have created a problem by allowing these foreign trained graduates to start flooding an already oversaturated job market.

    Scrapping articling would be a very big mistake. My articling experience at a litigation firm was invaluable. I argued motions in court, went to a trial, and learned the ropes of practice. Students fresh out of law school simply are not competent to be practising law on their own. You would not want someone straight out of law school handling complex personal injury litigation, or closing real estate deals. Articling must be kept as part of the licensing process.

    My suggestions is that law schools in Canada, and Ontario specifically, cut down the number of graduates that they produce. If they want to continue to produce the same number of graduates, then they need to be clear to applicants that their law degrees will not necessarily lead to an articling job, and they very well may never be called to the bar.

    We have a situation in Ontario now where law students are begging law firms for volunteer, unpaid articling jobs. I know lawyers who have received desperate applications fro applicants willing to articling for free. It’s atrocious, and something needs to be done. Either cut down the number of students being admitted Ontario law schools, or law schools must be frank with students and tell them their degrees won’t necessarily lead to jobs.

  3. While there is no doubt a growing problem in this area in larger centres, what this article and the comments to it do not point out is that many, if not most, smaller centres have a dearth of students applying for articling positions – there are anecdotes of long-toothed lawyers in places like Vernon, BC, Nanaimo, and Pembroke who quite literally are just looking for a student to come along so that after four or five years the lawyer can pass on hir rolodex and retire. Although anecdotal, while I was applying for work in Vancouver and Victoria, I noticed a firm in Vernon BC had a job listing posted on a lawyer recruitment site for at least four months – with the position being listed as “for immediate hire”. My experience was that if you want to practice in personal injury, family or insurance defence there is plenty of work in Victoria and Vancouver (as of last year) Seeing as I was not interested in those areas, I left for greener (ie smaller) pastures, and found several offers without trouble.

    Of course, you can’t be a fancy Bay-Street lawyer type working in Swift Current…. but you can leave work at 5 pm on a Wednesday. The “problem” is solved when we start looking outside the “big city” box.

  4. Speak for yourself, Jake. I’ve been applying to firms in small centres for over a year now, and I can’t catch a break. They generally don’t hire articling students, and on the rare occasion that they do, they’ll actually get a ton of applicants.

  5. To JakeWellis:

    This small town dearth is a myth. I and some of my friend have tried getting a position in various small towns and none of us succeeded. I had responses similar to the one Kenneth had. Others said that they don’t have enough work to go around or not enough money to hire a student even at minimum wage. Others wanted to see some kind of commitment to the small town or to rural living in my background as they are worried that I will flee at first chance.

    Also, many small town lawyers are looking to retire and so they want someone to take over their practice right away or very soon. They are not looking for inexperienced law grads. They are interested in lawyers with at least a few years of experience under their belts.

    This is not a viable solution for the articling shortage.

  6. Sorry but as a practicing lawyer I think the idea of getting rid of articling is completely preposterous. I know there is a shortage of positions but articling is an absolutely essential part of a legal education. Anyone who thinks three years of law school equips you to head out into the world of legal practice is naive. I learned more about the practical aspects of legal practice during my articling year than all three years of law school put together times three. I dont know if its students or academics or what who are driving this idea of eliminating articles but I doubt its practitioners. It is a completely ridiculous idea IMHO.

    Perhaps the problem with a shortage of articling has more to do with the fact that the schools are just graduating too many students for the market and this is the markets response to that glut. Maybe the law schools need to look at their own role in creating this problem and reduce their enrollment.

  7. Of course it should be scrapped. I just spent what, $80,000 on a legal education, got above-average marks, and now don’t have a job. I can’t even discharge my debts through bankruptcy.

  8. Pingback: The new faces of law school in Canada - Macleans.ca

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