A big issue among Ontario lawyers these days is the paucity of articling jobs for law students looking to become lawyers (generally, to become licensed as a lawyer you have to work for another lawyer as an “articling student”, basically a glorified apprenticeship, for 10 months). Between a sharp drop-off in activity in the legal community, and increases in enrollment at Ontario law schools and in the number of Canadians law students who couldn’t get into a respectable Canadian school attending law school abroad (hello, Bond University, I’m looking at you), we’ve reached a crisis point with hundreds of students graduating from law school (often with 6-figure student loans) with no realistic possibility of ever becoming lawyers.
To the Law Society of Upper Canada (the “LSUC”), this is a problem to be addressed. Since lawyers can’t be persuaded to hire more articling students then they need, the LSUC is proposing to create a new parallel licensing arrangement (the “PLA”), consisting of a 4-month long “Law Practice Program” and a 4-month co-op placement.
Personally, I don’t think the current excess supply of law students is a problem, over time it will decrease if gradates can’t find jobs. And the PLA is a non-solution to this non-problem that, if it achieves anything, it will be to increase the amount of disciplinary complaints about new lawyers.
As a proposal the PLA is almost certainly doomed to failure. The practice of law is something that is learned by doing. It’s hard to believe that students will acquire any useful practice skills from a classroom-based course and the LSUC’s past experience with similar programs (including the short-lived “professional responsibility” course that I was subjected to when I was an articling, which was shortly thereafter abandoned by the LSUC on the grounds that it was less than useless) is not inspiring. As for the four month co-op placement, it’s not clear where the LSUC is going to find meaningful placements – since this whole problem arises from a shortage of job opportunities for law students in the first place.
More fundamentally, it’s not at all clear how this process is going to solve the problem of Ontario (and foreign) law schools pumping out too many law school graduates in a shrinking legal marketplace. Ok, so the law students who previously couldn’t find articling positions will be able to go through the PLA and call themselves lawyers. So what? Will those lawyers be able to find legal jobs? Not likely. After all, why would the same firms who didn’t want to hire them when they were law students, want to hire them a year later after completing a decidedly second-rate licensing process, especially when they’re competing with candidates with stronger experience as articling students?
I suppose, in theory, that some of these lawyers might decide to hang-up their own shingle and start practicing on their own. Perhaps, but let’s face it, it’s damned hard to hang-up your own shingle and start practicing law on your own (I’m under no illusion that I could do it). It’ll be that much harder when your total practical legal experience consists of whatever second-rate 4-month co-op experiences the LSUC can organize. And let’s face it, the smartest, hardest working and most entrepreneurial students are the ones who get articling positions – that’s why they get articling positions while the other don’t. If the unplaced students can’t persuade other lawyers to hire them as employees, what makes us thing they’ll have the chops to persuade clients to hire them.
It’s worth noting, though, that the US, which is experiencing a similar over-supply of law school graduates (and where students don’t have to article to become lawyers), fully 44% of recent law school graduates can’t find traditional legal jobs after graduation (and that number is artificially depressed by the practice of US law schools of hiring their own graduates on temporary contracts). Why does the LSUC think that the result in Canada would be any different from the result in the US?
If anything, the predictable outcome of the new PLA process is an increased wave of client complaints, negligence suits and financial irregularities as the LSUC unleashes a wave of inexperienced and ill-prepared lawyers (both in terms of legal competence and in terms of the practical skills of running their own business in compliance with LSUC rules) upon the unsuspecting public. It’s hard to see how the LSUC can square its support for the ill-conceived PLA process with its responsibility as a regulator to protect the public.
But setting aside the fact that the LSUC’s “solution” doesn’t really solve the problem of over-supply of law students, I’m not sure why this is a problem that the LSUC feels it needs to resolve – they should stick to their job of regulating the profession (which the LSUC generally does poorly). If students who can’t get into a decent Canadian law school want to drop $100K on a law degree from Bond University in Australia, hey, that’s their business (though, personally, I think they’d be further ahead to “invest” that money in something less risky – like lottery tickets). The LSUC has no obligation to help them line up a job when they graduate. Similarly, if University of Ottawa law students want to drop $15K a year on a law degree knowing full well that 20% of the University of Ottawa’s graduating class can’t find articling positions (see Appendix 6 in the link), well, they paid their money and took their chances.
Thing is, over time, people will stop going to Bond University or the University of Ottawa once they realize that the degree isn’t worth the money they’re paying for it – we’ve already seen that in the US, with law school enrolments plummeting as students realize that the legal marketplace sucks and their education is overpriced. Law students, as a group, aren’t completely clueless. Or they’ll start suing their law schools for misleading them about their employment prospects, as they do (admittedly, unsuccessfully, so far) in the US (as an aside, the University of Ottawa is a particularly egregious case, since it has sharply increased enrolment while its articling placement rate has plummeted) . In the meantime, law students who currently can’t find articling positions will apply their talents in other fields.
Instead of developing a non-solution to a non-problem, the LSUC should just let the legal marketplace sort itself out.