The road ahead remains uncertain for recent law school graduates, as positions for junior lawyers remain in short supply in Ontario, despite the Legal Practice Program (LPP) pilot.
The LPP was approved by the Law Society in 2013 and is now in the first year of a three-year trial. It was divisive when it was implemented. Some members of the legal community voiced concerns about the quality of the program compared to traditional articles, as well as the possible perception that LPP participants were of a lower tier and not good enough to get a preferred articling position, with the accompanying stigma following them throughout the early part of their careers.
Traditionally, in addition to completing an undergraduate degree, three years of law school, and passing the Bar exam, law students needed to complete a 10 month articling apprenticeship at a law firm before being licensed. Students who did not secure articles would not be licensed to practise law, leaving their legal careers at a standstill.
In recent years, the Ontario legal profession has experienced an articling crisis, with over 15% of law graduates unable to secure articles and thus unable to get licensed. The LPP was intended specifically to address this crisis by providing an alternative pathway to lawyer licensing. Instead of articles, LPP participants instead complete four months of course work and four months of work placement, after which they can be licensed.
Problem averted, or problem delayed?
Whether or not the LPP pilot should be permanently implemented or cancelled is not a topic I try to address in this article. Undoubtedly, the program has been successful in providing an alternate path to licensing, which may be a better fit for some graduates. Where the LPP has undoubtedly not succeeded is in solving the articling crisis. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, because the LPP could not possibly aspire to address the real root of the problem: there simply are not enough traditional law jobs for all the law graduates.
The best the LPP program, as currently constituted, could realistically hope to achieve is to defer the problem further downstream. Once candidates emerge from the licensing process – whether having articled or having completed the LPP – they will still require jobs. The lack of articling positions is a symptom of a larger problem, which is that the number of law graduates continues to outpace the market demand. Creating an alternate path to licensing may temporarily reduce the pressure, but without jobs available, the real problem remains virtually unchanged further down the line.
Where do we go from here?
With the evolving nature of legal work and clients increasingly demanding lower costs for legal services, the reality is that there will continue to be fewer entry-level lawyer positions at traditional firms, and more law graduates competing for those jobs, compared with ten years ago. With this situation unlikely to change unless there is a significant increase in market demand for junior lawyers or a decrease in law school enrolments, law graduates will need to be creative.
The news for recent graduates isn’t all bad, however. While the LPP may not have resolved the shortage of traditional legal jobs, it has successfully provided an alternative licensing opportunity for deserving candidates who, without it and through no fault of their own, would find themselves in the difficult situation of not being able to be licensed. The LPP provides the possibility for more recent graduates to get their foot in the door of the legal profession, and once they do, anything is possible. There is every reason to believe that LPP candidates will enjoy many doors opening to them to a plethora of possible job opportunities, especially further down the road once they have acquired some legal experience.
Regardless of whether they take the articling or LPP path, there are universal take-home points that all soon-to-be graduates should keep in mind when it comes to finding a job: networking is utterly crucial, alternative legal career paths are available, and there are people who can help, including legal job market experts like the recruitment consulting staff at ZSA.