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Are new calls today really prepared to practise law?

Are new calls today really prepared to practise law?


Brooke Mackenzie:  What was articling like back in your day?

Gavin Mackenzie: I articled in the Paleozoic era, circa 1975. It was after the time when getting an articling job depended on whether your father was an executive of a corporate client, but before there were on-campus interviews and rules about when you could interview candidates. The firm got my name and address from my law school, and wrote to invite me to come in for a visit. It didn’t have a rotation system, and since I wanted to be a courtroom lawyer I latched on to the two partners in the litigation department, Claude Thomson and John Morin, from whom I learned more about being a lawyer than I learned in three years of law school. After articling for 12 months, I attended the Law Society’s bar admission course for six. The quality of the lectures and seminars was uneven, but if you had good articles and went to the classes you came out ready to practise. Ontario has since shortened the articling term and done away with the bar admission course, though students who go into the Law Practice Program rather than article have four months of in-class skills training. Regardless, I expect that students today aren’t as well prepared to practise as they were in the Paleozoic era.

BM: I imagine you’re right— although your experience likely can’t scale to today’s ­reality of national firms and many more law graduates. I articled in 2012, after ­securing a job through the strictly ­regulated Toronto OCI process in 2010. Much to my delight, I effectively circumvented my firm’s formal rotation system after a litigation partner asked me to assist with a long commercial trial. This trial was the highlight of my articles — attending court every day, researching points of law, preparing witnesses and briefs, and drafting portions of the closing argument. I learned a lot about being a litigator during those few months. The remainder of my articling, however, had its ups and downs. The worst was “delivery law” — when students were used to bring share certificates to another firm around the corner, or run copies of a case to court. Even when work was interesting, it often involved discrete research tasks that did not truly prepare me to practise. It wasn’t until I was an associate that I learned how to carry a file through the various stages of litigation. Fortunately I was able to learn working in teams with senior lawyers. I would not have been well prepared to hang up a ­shingle and practise independently immediately following my articles.

GM: I worry about those who haven’t articled. A combination of articling and the classroom portion of Ontario’s law practice program would be the best preparation. That is what we would have today if we hadn’t done away with the bar ­admission course.

BM: Isn’t that what the Law Practice ­Program is doing — a placement in practice and a classroom portion focusing on ­practical skills? What do you think of requiring a hybrid of the LPP and articling: four months of in-class skills training and eight months of either a traditional articling position or an LPP-coordinated placement? 

GM: That would work, if we could be ­satisfied with the quality of the eight-month placements. There are several practice areas in which lawyers used to hire ­articling students but no longer do, primarily for financial reasons: criminal defence, family law, and general practice outside large cities come to mind. We should provide incentives to lawyers in these areas to hire articling students. By subsidizing articling placements in under-serviced areas we wouldn’t have a two-tiered system and it would help improve the number and quality of articling positions. Students would be better prepared for practice and we might even alleviate the problem of the aging bar outside major urban centres.

BM: And what about unpaid placements?

GM:  I am opposed to unpaid placements. The cost per lawyer of subsidizing articling positions would be minuscule, and one of the Law Society’s core responsibilities is to assure the public that lawyers entering practice are competent.

BM: Particularly given the financial burden law grads already bear with tuition at current levels, those who train to practise in under-serviced areas shouldn’t have to take another hit. I was pleased to see that the LPP was able to secure four-month placements for all its candidates this past year, although not all of them were paid. 

GM: So, now that we’ve solved that ­problem should we move on to strife in the Middle East?

BM: Maybe next column.