Legal Residency – probably not the wave of the future.

February 25, 2013
Stuart Kovinsky

LSAT BlogYou aced  the LSAT, got great marks in your first two years of law school and are now pounding the pavement looking for a law firm to call home.  As we’ve examined in this Blog over the last month, you’re no longer guaranteed a great job, no matter how well you’ve done.  One respected academic offers a solution.

In a recent op-ed piece  for the New York Times, Rutgers School of Law dean John J. Farmer Jr. Proposed legal residency as a potential solution for some of the issues facing recent law grads, law firms and potential clients. While the proposal is interesting, it’s hard to believe that it could accomplish even a fraction of what he predicts.

At its essence, the proposal is to require future lawyers to complete a 2-year residency, similar to that required of future doctors. Instead of hiring just a few grads at high salaries, firms would hire a greater number of recent grads at considerably lower pay. Farmer posits that these savings would trickle down to clients, making legal services more affordable. In one broad stroke we’d solve two problems: huge numbers of debt-ridden unemployed law school grads would have jobs and “those who aren’t rich individuals and corporations” would be able to afford legal representation.

Ontario, the province in which I was called to the Bar, and many other Canadian provinces have long had an articling requirement for new lawyers. While there are a few variations, articles generally last a year and are, basically, an apprenticeship. It’s the responsibility of each new lawyer to find her own articles, although there’s a detailed match program to smooth out the process. Some of my most vivid memories are of Articling Week – all firms would interview prospective articling students over a 5-day period and the Toronto Underground (the retail- and restaurant-lined tunnels that underlie the downtown core) was teeming with eager 20 somethings wearing shiny new suits doing their best not to get lost and make it to their next appointment on time.

Articling students make considerably less than first-year associates, but the pay, at least at the big firms, is still competitive with most first-year professional jobs (and is pretty awesome for someone coming out of university). Obtaining a premium articling position is highly competitive – firms wanted the best students from across the country and students wanted jobs at the most reputable firms.

Does that sound familiar to those of you who have or are currently searching for first-year associate jobs in the U.S.? I’m sure it does. In the end, while articling offers recent grads great experience before official licensing, it’s really very similar to how first-year lawyers are hired and treated in the U.S.

Ironically, last November the Law Society of Upper Canada amended the articling rules – a necessity since law grads here, just like their American counterparts, were having trouble getting jobs. The new plan provides an alternative stream – if you can’t get an articling position with a firm, you can take 4 extra months of classes and an unpaid 4 month co-op placement. While doing so would allow you to then get called to the Bar, it certainly won’t give you a leg up on your competitors or be any guarantee of employment.

How does this relate to Dean Farmer’s proposal? Well, the Ontario experience suggests that:

1) legal apprenticeships neither guarantee nor greatly increase the chance of finding a job in a tough economy;

2) legal residency does little to change the competitive nature of the marketplace (which really shouldn’t be surprising, since medical residency is also incredibly competitive);

3) market forces will continue to rule – top-tier firms will continue to hire only the best and will offer competitive salaries; and

4) there will be little impact for clients. While many Ontario firms write-off work done by articling students (who are still expected to work a huge number of billable hours, even if those hours don’t always get billed out), those students are servicing the same firm clients; in other words, firms aren’t taking on new clients who couldn’t previously afford their services – firms are merely writing down billable hours for their existing corporate clients.

So, at least in this ex-articling student’s opinion, legal residency won’t solve many of the problems facing today’s law grads and underrepresented clients unless it’s incredibly highly regulated and forced down the throats of the big firms – and since representatives of those big firms have a lot of say in Bar matters, it seems unlikely to happen.

What’s your opinion?  As a prospective law student, soon-to-be law grad, recent grad or new lawyer, do you think that a residency or articling program would benefit your jurisdiction?  Is law even comparable to medicine, given the vastly different natures of law firms (where law residents would work) and hospitals (where doctors serve their residency)?

Stuart Kovinsky

Stuart Kovinsky I'm Stuart Kovinsky, an out-of-the-closet LSAT geek from Toronto. I've been teaching for Kaplan for over 20 years (not counting a 5 year break to practice as a commercial litigator at a big Toronto firm) and, working both as a teacher and an admissions consultant, have coached a lot of students to their top choice schools. I'm also an ultimate frisbee enthusiast - when not in the classroom or behind the keyboard you'll often find me on the field.

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