There's a crisis affecting recent law graduates in Ontario. In a nutshell the labour market for articling students (and for young lawyers) is depressed with hundreds of students being unable to transition from law school into the legal profession each year. Little is being done to address this situation by the Law Society of Upper Canada, the Ontario Bar Association ("OBA"), the Provincial Government, or the law schools themselves. Students are incurring massive debts, losing out on some of their prime income generating years while being jobless or underemployed, and are having to jump through hoops to enter the legal profession. This post is designed to identify the problems, cover off some of the literature on this complex topic, and offer a few modest ideas.
As an aside this renewed debate in Canada comes at a time when U.S. law schools are under increasing scrutiny for the admitting record numbers of students during an recessionary economy where employment prospects are bleak. There's action being taken as well, with a bipartisan push from the U.S. Senate to hold the American Bar Association to account for the explosion in law students unable to find jobs. Here are some key articles from the U.S. debate: "The Broken Law School Model: What Is To Be Done?"; "The Case Against Law Schools"; "Law School Economics: Ka-Ching!"; and, this excellent critique of the preceding article.
The legal trade magazine Canadian Lawyer published a feature length article this week outlining the dimensions and some of the underlying causes for the crisis. My take on the situation is that the lack of sufficient articling positions can be partially explained by: graduates increasingly wanting to live in the major urban centres of Ottawa and Toronto; a depressed legal market in the wake of the 2008 recession; the increased utilization of cost-efficient case management strategies and outsourcing by Bay Street firms that decreases the need for high numbers of articling students; the increased sophistication of clients and a reluctance to foot the bill for training new lawyers; the belief that Ontario is headed for a skills shortage in the near to medium term; the push in recent year by Ontario law schools to dramatically increase class size with little oversight from the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities ("MTCU"); students returning to Ontario after going to other provinces and jurisdictions, such as Australia, to obtain their law degrees; the increasing reliance on medium and large firms for the creation of articling positions; the greying of the profession; and, a general reluctance by many members of the profession and firms to take a financial hit by providing the practical training to teach the hard skills that aren't taught in law schools.
In June 2011 the Law Society created an Articling Task Force to study the problem. This is the second time in five years that the Law Society has examined the articling process and given that nothing changed in the wake of the findings of a 2008 study it remains to be seen what will be accomplished this time. Other key stakeholders such as the MTCU, OBA, and the Deans of Ontario's law schools have remained virtually silent on the crisis facing law graduates. Given the deepening impact this problem is having it's problematic that's these key groups are not advancing concrete solutions and fostering dialogue amongst policy makers, the profession, and law students themselves. Below I've come up with a number of ideas that could be enacted as part of a package of reforms to remedy the current articling crisis.
What can the Provincial Government do?
(1) Allocate increased funding to Legal Aid Ontario, ministries, and tribunals to create one hundred permanent articling positions for Ontario trained law students with the goal of alleviating the current articling crunch. The reasoning here is that the MTCU bears some responsibility for poor labour market planning, the cost is relatively low, and there's a desperate need for increased access to justice for marginalized citizens in Ontario; (2) cut the number of law students in Ontario in the short-term and institute hard caps to the number of law students each law school can admit each year; (3) provide tax incentives and loan forgiveness for young lawyers who choose to practice outside of large urban centres; (4) create a pool of money to subsidize the cost to firms in small centre and rural locales to hire articling students; and, (5) explore increased regulation and oversight of the Law Society if it fails to address the articling crisis.
What can the Law Society do?
(1) Engage with law students, articling students, and young lawyers to properly assess the dimensions of the current crisis; (2) develop alternative entry routes into the legal profession for people unable to find articling positions; (3) create a standing committee with student membership that actively monitors the labour market for articling students and young lawyers; (4) proactively communicate with prospective law students at the time they apply to law school about the situation that exists in the labour market to address information asymmerties that currently exist; and (5) create more initiatives, resources, and support for small firm and sole practitioners to assist them in hiring articling students.
What can law schools do?
(1) Immediately reduce the number the number of students admitted each year until the labour market is stabilized; (2) revise the curriculum to teach the actual practice of law along aside the theory; (3) make full semester clinical placements a mandatory component of legal education; (4) ensure that career services offices are staffed with competent professionals who can actively guide students through the transition into the labour market; and, (5) ensure that students are provided with regular updates about the state of the labour market for articling students.
That's my take on the articling crisis. I'll be following the work of Articling Task Force closely and will report on any significant developments. If you have any comments please email me and if you're a recent law graduate struggling to find a position I'd love to hear from you about the on the ground situation.