These days, though, that direction isn’t so clearly defined. The smallest percentage of law graduates in recent memory are getting the articling positions they need to become full-time lawyers.
Those involved in the industry say law firms are growing at a slower rate. Many of them don’t have enough money to employ the same percentage of graduates as in past years.
“The idea of practising law is to provide legal services to the public, it’s not to go bankrupt,” said Thomas Conway, treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada. “If it doesn’t make economic sense for some lawyers to hire articling students, one can’t expect them to do it.”
About 10.5 per cent of those seeking articling positions in Ontario were unable to secure them as of June 2012, according to numbers from the law society. That was up significantly from the 4.3 per cent that couldn’t secure positions in 2006.
That’s in spite of the fact that the number of articling positions has actually increased over the last few years, according to the law society.
The problem, said Mr. Conway, is there are now more graduates competing for those positions than ever before.
Such is the case at the University of Ottawa, where the growing percentage of graduates without articling positions hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm for applying to law school. The university has seen the number of applications since the recession increase at an even higher rate than previously.
Applications jumped to 5,847 in 2010 from 5,126 in 2009, according to figures released by the university – the largest year-over-year hike in at least the last decade. The number of students accepted has also increased from 704 in 2008 to 840 for 2012.
There’s little doubt that the decline in demand for legal services from law firms has created pressure to eliminate articling positions, said Jay Kerr-Wilson, who heads up the articling program in the Ottawa office of national firm Fasken Martineau.
Students don’t generate much revenue on their own since they don’t feel comfortable billing clients for training hours, he said. But he believes the two or three articling students the firm has at a given time provide a valuable – and cost-effective – service to clients.
“They’re doing really good work but at rates that are far below what an associate or partner would charge for the same task,” he said.
Other Ottawa lawyers feel a professional responsibility to give students the same articling opportunity that they had at the start of their careers.
Rosalind Conway (no relation to Thomas Conway), who operates her own criminal defence practice, teamed with other lawyers to generate more opportunities in 2012. She started contacting other law firms through an online mailing list and encouraged them to create more articling positions.
They managed to create a dozen openings, but still fell short of their goal.
“I personally think that members of the bar have an obligation to assist other people with their articles,” said Ms. Conway.
SIDEBAR: NEW LPP PROGRAM
The large numbers of law graduates not getting articling positions in recent years has led to the creation of a new means for students to get professionally accredited.
The group that governs the professional conduct of lawyers in Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada, is working on introducing an alternative to articling called a Law Practice Program.
The program will consist of a four-month course, followed by another four months of work placement.
The creation of the program has led to concern from some that there will soon be two tiers of students, with those who take the LPP being left behind when it comes to full-time employment opportunities.
Jay Kerr-Wilson, who’s in charge of the articling program of the Ottawa office of national law firm Fasken Martineau, said his firm is more likely to hire lawyers who have already worked at a large practice.
“I would have a fair amount of confidence in people who have gone through this new program but I think I’d probably still prefer someone who has experience in a firm like ours,” said Mr. Kerr-Wilson.