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New program shakes up Ontario articling system

Manny Sahota, who took his law degree in England and is now trying to complete it here, poses in front of Osgoode Hall in Toronto, November 23, 2012.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

A watershed change to Ontario's legal articling system will finally provide an option for exasperated students who view articling as a wasted year, the head of the province's governing body for lawyers says.

Under the new plan, students unable to get an articling position will be able to combine four months of additional classroom study with four months at an unpaid, co-op work placement with a small firm or sole practitioner.

Thomas Conway, treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, said on Wednesday that many law students have chafed at the mandatory year – including a friend he articled alongside many years ago.

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"She told me that her articling was a waste of a year of her life," Mr. Conway recalled in an interview. "She didn't get the skills that she wanted in order to become the lawyer that she wanted to be."

Heated debate last week at the law society's monthly convocation meeting revealed a deep schism within the legal profession over how to remedy a shortage of articling positions. One faction lauded articling as a venerable institution that gives law students a vital introduction to the realities of legal practice.

However, opponents denigrated it as a wasteful competition for jobs that is weighted against visible minorities and turns those who succeed into overworked serfs.

"There is a theory that one of the deficiencies of the current articling process – not just in Ontario but across the country – is that it skews candidates into large firms in large urban centres where they get the kind of experience that large firms in large urban centres can provide lawyers," Mr. Conway said.

That bias is off-putting to many students who are attracted to fields in which practitioners generally cannot afford articling positions – such as family, immigration and criminal law, he said.

These fields – and society as a whole – will benefit from the new Law Practice Program, Mr. Conway said.

"It will present an excellent opportunity to start filling gaps in the service presently being provided to Ontarians," he said. "We think ... this will be a better route than the traditional articling process."

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Justice reporter

Born in Montreal, Aug. 3, 1954. BA (Journalism) Ryerson, 1979. Previously covered environment beat, Queen's Park. Toronto courts bureau from 1981-85. Justice beat from 1985 - present. More

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