Articling, and the Law Practice Program (LPP) in Ontario

I don’t update my blog very often, as is plainly obvious by scrolling down. I’ve been busy with work and school, and the things that I feel need to be said can usually be handled in an acerbic tweet or Facebook status. But this is more hefty. I’m in the last year of law school (as many of you already know), and while most[?] of my fellow third year students have their articling positions for next year signed, sealed, and delivered, I’m still searching for mine. And I know I’m not the only one.

Today Nathalie Des Rosiers, uOttawa law school’s new common law dean for 2013-14, held an informal Q&A session in FTX 106 (the little conference room by the secretariat). So informal, that I was the only one there when I first arrived! I introduced myself, told her who I was, and the rut in which I found myself. She was quite sympathetic and quite frank, neither of which I had expected, to be honest.

First off, she assured me that it’s too early in the game to start panicking. A lot of firms will be making a hiring push come January. She said she’s heard stories of cold calling firms working quite successfully; I countered with stories where it completely alienated said student from the firm, with someone telling them never to call back. She admits it’s a tactical decision to be made.

Second, I was told that the number of students who can’t find articling positions has remained steady at between 5-7% across Ontario, even as enrolment increases. 300 students in our class, that means, what? 15-20 of us won’t secure articling by May? Perhaps a few will do an LLM, some have other jobs lined up in finance, policy, or whatever. Some may never have had any intention of practising law to begin with. Who knows?

Ms. Des Rosiers highlighted the same cognitive dissonance as our former Dean, Mr. Bruce Feldthusen,  something that I also thought of independently. The law society and academics keeps telling us there’s access to justice issues in law. Established lawyers say we’re churning out too many new JDs. Either someone is lying, or there’s an extreme market inefficiency that needs to be addressed and corrected.

Law Practice Program:

I wanted to know as much as I could about this alternative to articling. To be blunt, everything I’ve heard about it to date was shit. The standard line circulating in the blogosphere and through law school was something like this:

The LPP is 8 months, where instead of making money as an articling student, you’re PAYING MORE MONEY to your law school, to have four months of in-class training, which consists of be transported to Thunder Bay in the dead of winter, to study at Lakehead. This is followed by a four month internship, where some law firm will exploit you for free labour, leaving you less experienced and further in debt than articles.

Moreover, there’s the shame of being the non-articling student LPP student. You didn’t get your articles, did you? Maybe it was because your grades were poor? Or you’re lazy? Or you’re just so socially awkward and inept, that no one dared bring you into their office and have you within a country mile of a paying client? In effect it’s like the breakfast club for disadvantaged children in grade school; sure, you’re offered a nutritious meal, but no parent or child wants the stigma of people knowing they’re poor, and so it becomes an underutilized service.

I had gone into this meeting, thinking there was no chance in HELL that I would choose this option. What the dean told me didn’t completely flip my position, but it has piqued my curiosity. Here’s what she could tell me about the process:

– An RFP was put out last year for different institutions (firms and schools) who wanted to provide the LPP program. The two nameless final candidates are both located in Toronto (i.e., Lakehead was not one of them.). As well, uOttawa is proposing to provide the LPP program for any candidates who wish to take it in French.

– Rather than ship us out to Toronto for the process, much of the four-month program would be distance education, with courses provided through online assignments and individual study, supplemented by occasional trips for workshops and assignments in Toronto. Ergo, relocation is not necessary for the program.

– My memory is a little fuzzy on this point, but apparently there is a fee associated with articling programs (paid by the students? The Principals? I don’t quite remember.) I guess it’s paid by the students, because apparently everyone pays for it, regardless of whether they do the LPP or the articling option. The idea is to shoulder the cost across the entire legal community, so that students who choose this route are not footed the entire bill.

– The goal is to have paid placements for these mini-articles. It looks like they’re unable to guarantee that they will be fully compensable, but our dean assures us that the goal is to have some form of remuneration for the four months you put in.

The Practicalities:

Well, it’s all well and good that it isn’t the Draconian punishment that I once thought it to be, but how does it compare to articling? Will I be branded a loser before I even have the chance to ruin my reputation in court? Dean Des Rosiers optimistically thinks not. Apparently, when a similar two-tiered system was in Australia, the LPP option quickly eclipsed articling in popularity. She also pointed out that not all articling positions are created equally. Regardless of your philosophical view of the matter, there’s no dispute that articling for a sole practitioner working out of home will be a different educational experience than articling at one of the seven sister factories on Bay Street. It just is. In that respect, the LPP offers something of a “quality control,” in the sense that all of these students will receive the same education and curriculum, with the oversight of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Whether that means better, worse, or a juste millieu remains to be seen.

There’s also a component of professional development and “running a law business” built into those four months. In a sense, as the dean put it, if you know there’s a particular niche market you want to serve, or you know that you want to work as a sole practitioner running your own business, this is a chance to get some knowledge about the business aspect of it, and start earning an income two months earlier than your friends articling. So there’s an argument to be made for it in that way, as well.

Will this take away from certain small firm articling positions? Will opportunistic lawyers use this program to deflate the costs of their articling program? Dean Des Rosiers admits that LSUC will be “seeing how the market reacts” to decide whether or not something like that will happen. My own personal view, I don’t see how it could. You still have to use resources to train these students, and if you only get them for four months instead of ten, I can’t see the economics of how that would benefit them.

Conclusion:

I don’t know if I want to become a guinea pig for the LPP program. We will find out in the next few weeks what precisely it’s going to look like. What I do know is that it sounds a lot less horrible than I thought it would be, and that it sounds a lot better than the “Hail Mary” articling options which I had been contemplating for the past couple of weeks, in the event that nothing comes along by say, January or February. The career counsellors told me that the articling hunt is a lot like dating, in that I will die unloved and alone it’s a personality fit. It’s not just about the raw CV elements, like my grades (which are good), or my extracurriculars (of which there are several). It’s about finding great individuals who really speak to you as mentors, that you think you’ll develop a rapport with, and who will guide you through the untested waters of well, pretty much the rest of your life.

I still hope to find an articling position, to find lawyers with an experience and philosophy that really speak to me, and who want to take me on as a student and train me. But in the event that I don’t find them (or don’t find them within the year), I’m not scared any more. I really would like to thank the Dean for sitting down and having such a frank chat with her students, and giving me some peace of mind today.

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