Articling Crisis: Views from across the country

  • Heather Douglas

At the end of October, the Canadian Bar Association Young Lawyers held an Executive Meeting in Toronto. Members came from across the country: Newfoundland, B.C., Alberta, P.E.I., Quebec, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and the Territories. There was also a representative from the American Bar Association.

At the meeting, we discussed internal governance matters and policy. This included an in-depth discussion about the current articling crisis, and how we could help. Although I am not going to discuss CBA policy or its position on articling, I am going to highlight our discussion about articling. This information is anecdotal and represents observations from across the country.

British Columbia and Ontario are experiencing the greatest articling crisis compared to the rest of the country. In British Columbia, rumors are growing about students taking on unpaid articles. These positions are not advertised, but are spread through word of mouth (making it harder to determine its prevalence). Whereas in Ontario, people are seeing unpaid or low paid positions openly advertised. It was theorized that the LPP program in Ontario has normalized unpaid or low paid articling jobs.

In P.E.I and Newfoundland the bars are smaller. Students are finding high quality, paid articling positions. The smaller bar keeps articling principals accountable for their behaviour and acts as a sort of quality control.  Some law firms even cooperate, and set up a sort of rotation process. This allows students to get experience in different fields.

In Saskatchewan, it was unheard of for a student to not find an articling position. However, they are just starting to see students struggle with finding articling jobs. Similarly, Alberta is starting to see this too. Especially, as students from other provinces migrate to Alberta to find work. It is also predicted that the articling crisis will come to Manitoba, though it is currently rare for students to not find positions in that province.

In the territories, students are finding articling positions. However, the people that tend to article there have deep roots with family and friends, making the transition easier.

A common issue for every province is the rural-urban divide. Big cities are seeing an over supply of young lawyers. Whereas many rural communities are desperate for young lawyers. There may not be a lawyer nearby for hundreds of kilometres.  And the lawyers that are in small communities are near retirement age. In British Columbia, the average age for a lawyer outside the Lower Mainland is around 55 years old.

Law schools that were built in northern communities have not ameliorated this problem. Many students are moving to urban centres after graduation.

The United States is experiencing the same issue with rural communities. Some towns have gone to great lengths to address this, including paying stipends to attract general practitioners. These general practitioners do not advise the town but rather advise individuals living in the town.

The American Bar Association representative also spoke of a program that could be adopted here. Under Barack Obama, there was a student loan forgiveness program. This program was used to encourage young lawyers to work in public service. If a lawyer worked for 10 years in public service, then their loans could be forgiven. It was theorized that the Canadian provinces and territories could adopt a similar program to motivate students to practice in rural communities.

The British Columbia Branch of the CBA has already made submissions to the British Columbia Government on creating a student loan forgiveness program for young lawyers willing to practice in rural areas.

It was also discussed how we could ensure high quality training, especially with a rapidly changing legal economy. Smaller bars have an easier time with quality control. People tend to be held accountable by each other. However, larger bars have a hard time ensuring that someone is being trained rather than exploited for administrative work or being ignored all together.

Entity regulation was seen as one way to address the issue. Scrapping articling and moving to an American style was also discussed. It was questioned whether articling could continue to serve its original purpose, when traditional legal work is decreasing, and we are starting to see completely new types of legal work emerge.

At this time, the CBA Young Lawyers has not taken a position on the articling process. However, it may in the future.