Matt Hopkins is an aspiring lawyer with a lot on his mind.
“I worry about bankruptcy in the next year, for sure,” he says.
Hopkins left law school at Western University with $150,000 of debt, and is counting on finding permanent work in his field to start paying it down. But for many young law students, reaching that goal is becoming increasingly fraught.
After graduating last year, Hopkins was unable to find a paid articling position. Across the province, an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of law students now fail to secure the 10-month articling role required to become a licensed lawyer.
This fall, the Law Society of Upper Canada introduced a new program to address that reality: it’s called the Law Practice Program and it’s designed to address the growing shortage of articling positions in Ontario. It offers a quicker route to qualification through 4 months of largely online skills training and a significantly shorter 4 month articling requirement. Ryerson is the sole English language provider of the Law Practice Program in Ontario (the University of Ottawa runs a French version) and now has 225 inaugural students.
The need to address the articling shortage isn’t just about creating cushy legal jobs. It’s about ensuring the diversity of a field often seen as a bastion of privilege. As a number of submissions to the Law Society of Upper Canada noted before the LPP was formally established, students from minority communities are more likely to have a higher debt load – but are less likely to find articling positions.
Campaigners have already expressed alarm over the growth of unpaid articling roles. In November, the Toronto Star reported on an unpaid 10-month articling position offered by a legal clinic in Durham. Traditionally, firms have paid articling students - who graduate with an average debt load of over $70,000 according to a 2014 report by the Law Students’ Society of Ontario.
For Hopkins, who defines himself as coming from a blue-collar background, entry into the Ryerson LPP program was a hail-Mary attempt to find paid articling; unpaid roles were financially impossible for him. His gamble worked: the London-based law firm that had turned him down for a full 10 month articling position were willing to pay him for the briefer four month period.
But the program’s new executive director, former MPP Chris Bentley, admits that a “significant number” of firms aren’t willing to do the same. Indeed, a November report by the Law Society of Upper Canada suggests that over a third of the articling positions offered by the LPP are unpaid. According to the report, 73 of the 227 placements were unpaid while 91 were paid. For 63 of the positions, wages had yet to be determined.
Bentley says his team is working hard to ensure the roles are salaried, but says it can be a tough sell with prospective employers.
“It’s not as though paid positions magically appear. It’s challenging out there. Let’s be clear, it’s challenging out there,” he told the Star.
But after almost a decade of schooling, an additional 4 months of unpaid training and the possibility of a further 4 months of unpaid articling is a daunting challenge for students, too.
“I know for a fact that people left the program because they couldn’t afford to be there,” says Hopkins.
The LPP’s tuition costs are covered by licensing fees paid by all final year Ontario law students – which have now increased by almost $2,000 to cover the expense of the program. While firms taking on students in traditional articling roles often cover their licensing costs, which now sit at around $5,000, some LPP students worry that employers taking them on for just four months won’t make a similar offer. LPP candidates are not eligible for government financial assistance through OSAP.
“I do want the program to succeed,” says Ryerson LPP student Dan Cira, who has secured a paid four month articling position at a small Toronto firm. “This is the first year that they’re running it so I expected there would be some bumps along the road. But the work placement organization…and just the number of unpaid or very low paid placements is not too favourable.”
But given the shortage of traditional articling positions, Bentley argues that even an unpaid position is better than none at all.
“Maybe I’m going to say something that nobody wants to hear. The fact is that if somebody doesn’t have either an LPP or an articling position, they can’t get called (to the bar).”
“We hope to create 225 opportunities - one for every candidate - so they can get licensed and put the education they’ve acquired to work,” he says.
Students agree that the old system is faltering, unable to accommodate the growing number of students who want to qualify as lawyers. Both Hopkins and Cira say much of their experience with the program has been positive, but emphasize that there are solutions that could ease the financial burden perpetuated by the LPP.
Hopkins believes the program’s candidates should at least be eligible for student loans from the government. Alternatively, he argues, the hands on work experience provided by 10-month articling jobs or the LPP should be integrated directly into a student’s three years of law school so they graduate ready to practice.
Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association and an articling student at Torkin Manes LLP in Toronto, says another solution could be an additional levy on practicing lawyers to create a fund for paid placements through the new Ryerson program.
“My position is, the 10 month articling positions always, always should be paid. I don’t see why the law society doesn’t make that a requirement. And then for the LPP that they create a fund that employers would have to apply to and have to demonstrate the financial need,” she says.
“I see that the heads of the LPP program are saying this is a better alternative, but I just think the intergenerational inequities are being completely ignored,” she adds. “The older lawyers…should be contributing to the profession.”
Cira is also trying to make the case for a levy, which he argues is particularly important to ensuring that under-funded settings like legal clinics are able to attract and pay young aspiring lawyers of diverse backgrounds.
“The answer isn’t not paying (students). We have to look elsewhere for the answer,” says Cira.
Asked about solutions such as a possible levy, Bentley says he’d rather “let the Law Society deal with that.”
“I don’t claim to have the answer,” he adds. “I think its part of a societal challenge where very well qualified, very educated and energetic people are anxious to put their education to work in all sorts of fields.”
In the absence of answers, though, Bentley says he’ll continue to pedal the value of the program to all who’ll listen - tendering a final pitch as he hangs up the phone:
“If there are people out there with paid positions, we’d love to hear from you,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s only four months!”