There’s been a fair bit of talk over the past few months about the practice of articling in Ontario. Specifically, the problem is that there are too many law school graduates for too few articling positions. The situation has deteriorated to the point where the Law Society of Upper Canada has released a major report outlining an “alternative work experience,” in order to deal with the surplus of students who don’t get “real” articling positions. For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with the minority report: if implemented, this proposal will create a two-tiered system, and anyone who uses the alternative will, from the get-go, be stigmatized within the profession.
In one sense, there’s something impressive here about the way law schools have themselves escaped much of the blame; after all, the root cause of the problem was their decision to increase capacity well beyond what the articling system could support. Now, I don’t believe in making universities alter admissions based on labour-market conditions; if people want to pay for the privilege of learning about law, there’s no reason to refuse their money. But greater honesty with students is needed: if you know that a quarter of your graduates aren’t going to be able to get professional licensing because of an overloaded system, you should be required to explain that fact in very clear terms to incoming students. Not to do so is ethically suspect.
But the real story here has not to do with the number of articling students, but rather with how they are actually distributed. The Law Society report does make a passing reference to “equity” issues – the suspicion that, perhaps, non-white students aren’t getting a fair shake in articling spots. But they never get to the heart of the matter, which is that law firms’ control of the articling process gives firms an enormous, unregulated role in controlling access to the profession. And though no one will ever say this out loud, firms use this power to do favours for colleagues and clients. “Oh, your son needs a spot? We’ll see what we can do …”
We need to take a hard look at how real-world opportunities get distributed in Canada. Justin Trudeau, a man given opportunities well beyond what his native talents would command, because of who his father was, is just the tip of the iceberg. At the highest levels, this is a clique-y and insular place; jobs get publicized through insider networks rather than through open, merit-based competitions. We’re not yet in New York publishing industry territory, where trustafarians have a hammerlock on all the choice positions, but in Toronto, at least, we’re closer to that situation than we’d like to admit.
Canada’s done a good job of ensuring access to education. Pretty soon, though, we’ll need to start having serious discussions about ensuring access to opportunities. And as Ontario’s articling situation shows, these are two different things.