Canada, Job Searches

Is the Legal Job Crisis Spreading to Canada?

I recently received an email from an old friend asking for advice on behalf of a relative who is thinking about applying to law school. I was about to respond with a warning about the dangers of taking on massive student loans to get a degree that just might put you on the fast track to unemployment, but then I reread the email and noticed that the young woman in question is thinking about applying to law schools in Canada (she’s Canadian).

O Canada! Their legal education system is different — and, by some accounts, better than ours. At least if you define “better” in terms of “better at getting law school graduates into legal jobs.”

But could things up north be changing — for the worse, eh?

That’s the suggestion of a recent article in the Globe & Mail:

Meagan Williams, 30, has a seemingly impressive résumé for a budding lawyer: a law degree from University of Western Ontario, good grades, two summers in a “pretty coveted” position at her school’s legal clinic, experience at mock-trial competitions, and a master’s degree in politics.

But despite her achievements, she was initially unable to secure one of the 10-month articling positions mandatory for all Canadian law-school graduates who wish to become fully fledged lawyers. And she was not alone.

For those of you who don’t know all aboot it, “articling” constitutes an apprenticeship of sorts, where the articling student or clerk learns about the practice of law in a real-world work environment. In Canada, it’s required to become a member of the bar; in the United States, of course, we have no such requirement.

An oversupply of lawyers? Don't blame Canada; historically they've regulated entry to the profession more rigorously.

Some observers of the U.S. legal scene — e.g., myself, in a New York Times piece — have argued that adding apprenticeship would benefit our legal education system. It would provide law school graduates with the practical training that employers sometimes complain they lack. And if it could replace part of the three-year law school curriculum, it could lower the cost of legal education: instead of spending (and paying for) a third year of classroom instruction, aspiring lawyers could work as apprentices, gaining practical experience and earning rather than paying out money.

Maybe our system should become more like Canada’s. But is Canada thinking of making its system more like our own, in response to a shortage of articling positions?

In what’s been called an “articling crisis,” 12 per cent of Ontario law school graduates were unable to get articling jobs in 2011, according to statistics from the Law Society of Upper Canada. A new task force is mulling a range of reforms, while some in the profession call for the creation of alternatives to mandatory articling, or even the scrapping of it all together.

This strikes me as the wrong solution to a “problem” that might not even be a problem. If Canadian law students can’t find articling positions, perhaps there isn’t sufficient demand in the market for additional lawyers. The “solution” might be to mint fewer law students, not to get rid of a barrier to entry that is actually tied to market demand.

Of course, one can’t help feeling bad for students like Meagan Williams who have difficulty finding articling posts:

“I was definitely staring in the face of this huge barrier to doing what I want to do,” said Ms. Williams, who says she spent her third year looking for an articling post, even cold-calling small law firms across Ontario trying to convince them to take on an articling student. She has since attained one of the positions she had hoped for all along, at Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney-General, starting next year.

But while most of her classmates were already working at a law firm after graduation, Ms. Williams and many others like her remained in a kind of limbo, facing the prospect of being left with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and with a law degree but no way to actually practise law. Worse, they faced competition for the next year’s articling positions from the new cohort of students coming up behind them.

Two observations. First, Williams actually found a position — suggesting that this “crisis” may not be so grave. Second, if Canadians are worried about placing law students “in a kind of limbo,” in which they are “left with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and with a law degree but no way to actually practise law,” it seems that they should not move to an American-style model, and they should not scrap the articling requirement.

Instead, people thinking about law school in Canada should read articles like the Globe & Mail piece and think twice about going to law school. If they decide to forge ahead, despite the warnings, that’s one thing. But they shouldn’t think — as many U.S. law students do, sadly — that merely having finished law school entitles you to a job practicing law. That’s not the way the world works.

Canadian law school administrators are — what a shock! — all in favor of scrapping the articling requirement:

Lorne Sossin, the dean of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, says he believes articling is invaluable, but opposes keeping it as a mandatory requirement for going on to practise law: “It shouldn’t be the bottleneck that keeps qualified graduates of law school from having a chance to contribute.”

A “chance to contribute” to law school coffers. And just like the United States, Canada has more more law schools in the pipeline, despite the inability of all law school grads to find decent jobs:

Some say the recent approval of a new law school at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, set to open next year, as well as the new law school at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., will only make the problem worse.

But Chris Axworthy, dean of the new Thompson Rivers law school, argues the articling crisis is mostly a big-city phenomenon.

Rural and aboriginal communities are actually underserved by the legal profession, he points out, and filling that need is part of his new school’s mission: “We will do what other law schools do, but we will also ensure the opportunity to work in a smaller community and a smaller firm is a real opportunity for students.”

Launching new law schools to will serve underserved communities — where have we heard that before? It’s how new law schools in the United States try to justify themselves — even though it’s doubtful that their debt-saddled graduates will actually be able to afford to take public-interest jobs.

Canadians: even though your health care legal education system has its critics, on the whole it’s pretty good. Why would you want to make it more like the broken model we have here in the U.S.?

If you try to “reform” your system by getting rid of apprenticeship and end up instead with thousands of deeply indebted, unhappy law school graduates, you have only yourselves to blame.

Law profession faces an ‘articling crisis’ [Globe & Mail (Toronto)]

Earlier: Canada Has A Better System for Prescription Meds and Law Schools?
Blame Canada — For Its Crappy Law Schools
The Broken Law School Model: What Is To Be Done?

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