New Task Force on Articling – here we go again …

The Report to Convocation on June 23, 2011, records a motion from the Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada to establish a Task Force on articling. The task force has been established in response to ongoing concerns about “the articling program, relating in particular to the growing number of unplaced candidates.”  For the official announcement, click HERE.

For those of us who paid attention and even participated when the 2008 Task Force explored the issues, I suspect there was a small groan followed by a whispered … “so soon …?

On further reflection, I must acknowledge this is an opportunity.   After nine years as a career coach in a large law school, and my more recent experiences teaching internationally trained lawyers, I also have a sincere interest in challenging the obstacles to licensing that are founded on the availability of articling positions (jobs) rather than gaps in qualifications (note, as will be discussed below, I do think that demonstrating practical skills ought to be an aspect of the qualifications).

The recent Professional Development and Competence Department Resource and Program Report (click HERE) shows that that proportion of law graduates who do not become licensed within a year of graduation is increasing.  This worries me.  I am fairly certain it worries all of us.

In the midst of the 2008 process, I was in Melbourne, Australia, and found an opportunity to visit the Leo Cussen Institute (click HERE ) as an example of a practical legal training program (there are others – click HERE).  Judith Dickson generously took me for a tour, and answered my stream of questions with great patience.

It seemed like an effective response to the gap between the number of law students graduating and the lack of articling positions in Australia.   In brief, for those students who do not article (the reasons vary), the practical training course gives them the opportunity to interview “clients”, open and manage mock trust accounts, prepare documents for trial  and work with a registrar, and gain experience through rotations in various practice areas (litigation and corporate).  This all occurs with ongoing feedback from trusted and trained faculty/practitioners over months of daily training.

I still think it is a good idea and something to consider as the task force goes forward – in fact it led to the last few years of me reading/thinking about experiential education in law school that is not reliant solely on clinics (and on to Paul Maharg’s work, the wonderful presentations at the NIFTEP workshop and Institute for Teaching and Learning conference, etc etc).

There are some obvious and immediate questions/concerns that I identified in 2008 and have not resolved for myself (I welcome comments).  For starters:

  • How do we fund the space, faculty, resource/material development, administration, design, etc?
  • What equity issues are raised?: How do we deal with the possible development of a hierarchy of practical experiences?  What are the implications for future employment?
  • Will lawyers licensed through a practical legal training course be stigmatized because perceived as not able to land articles?  Would graduates of the program be marginalized?
  • How do law students who have just gone into (potentially substantial) debt cope with yet another year without employment, and the possibility of further debt?
  • Will future clients trust in the training?

The idea of some sort of practical training alternative to articles has been discussed by others.  Dean Lorne Sossin, at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, blogged about whether articling should be abolished, and the various alternatives back in October, 2010 at:  http://deansblog.osgoode.yorku.ca/2010/10/should-articling-be-abolished/

Alice Woolley recently alerted members of the CALE listserv to a post by Neil Rose,
at Legal Futures, on the process of becoming a lawyer in the UK.  For more, click HERE (there are plenty of further links to information on work-based learning, the program of the Institute for Legal Executives, etc). 

These all highlight one of the biggest questions for me – even if we remove articling as a barrier to licensing, or offer alternative practical experiences, are we simply postponing the problem – that we do not have enough supportive environments within which lawyers can develop as professionals?

For me it ties into the perpetual question: how do we ensure that people licensed to practice have the substantial knowledge and skill sets to represent our clients’ legal interests ethically and professionally … and how do we at the same time ensure we have not established arbitrary barriers or obstacles to the licensing process?

How do we support our future lawyers?

If we accept that some forms of practical skill development are important and relevant to the licensing process (which I tend to answer “yes”):

  • Where can that take place (law school?  Law firm/office? Institute that offers practical legal training course?  Other??)
  • What does it look like? (A stand-alone training course course? Structured mentoring in the first years of practice? Articles?  Other?)
  • How is it funded/supported?
  • What are the implications for the profession?

This is just the start of the conversation.

What are your thoughts?

This entry was posted in Equity/Diversity, Ethics and Professionalism. Bookmark the permalink.

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