Young Quebec lawyers face bleak prospects

Quebec law students are having a harder time finding articling positions, getting paid less for them, and receiving fewer job offers after articling, reveals a troubling report by the Young Bar of Montreal that urges the provincial law society to establish “reasonable” and variable quotas to curb the “uncontrolled” rising number of lawyers in the province.

Articling and employment prospects for Quebec law students have deteriorated over the past decade, and will continue to be bleak “unless something is done rapidly” because law schools are still churning out new graduates at a time when law firms are shrinking their articling programs, noted Caroline Larouche, president of the Young Bar of Montreal. The Young Bar’s report, entitled Employment and Young Lawyers in Quebec, is based on a survey of 1,346 lawyers called to the bar within 10 years.

“The main problem is that there are too many lawyers,” remarked Larouche. “There’s a limit to the number of lawyers a market can absorb and we have reached that limit in Quebec. The market is saturated, and it needs a helping hand.”

The numbers are gloomy. Law students are finding their articling positions later and later. Indeed, approximately 25 per cent fewer law students found articling positions before the end of their professional training at the Quebec Bar School compared to 2004. Equally dismaying, salaries for articling positions dropped over the past decade by an inflation-adjusted 16 per cent to $543 per week. And those are the lucky ones as the number of unpaid articling positions has doubled over the same period. In 2004 one out of 50 law students with an articling position was unpaid compared to one out of 23 today.

Even those who managed to find articling positions quickly discovered that it did not necessarily lead to a job. In 2004, 11.8 per cent of lawyers were unemployed at the time of their registration on the Roll of the Order – a figure that now stands at 18.2 per cent. In yet another dismaying finding, the report reveals that young lawyers who do find work can no longer count on making as much as much as those who entered the profession in 2004: 17 per cent of lawyers who enrolled in the bar between the years 2004 and 2008 earned over $110,000 compared to a paltry 0.7 per cent today. At the end of the other scale, nearly one in three lawyers admitted to the bar in 2013 earned less than $20,000 compared to 3.5 per cent who entered the bar between 2004 and 2008.

“The findings of the report are alarming but not surprising,” said Dominique Tardif, vice-president at ZSA Legal Recruitment in Montreal. “The market is much more competitive today than it was 10 years ago. There are more lawyers around, greater numbers are entering the profession, and more tend to work until a later age. But there are not necessarily more clients.”

In a controversial proposal that has spurred debate within academic and legal circles, the Young Bar recommends that access to the profession be limited by quotas by the Quebec Bar School because the current situation is becoming “dangerously close” to the critical threshold. At present there are 326 lawyers per 100,000 residents in Quebec, a figure that should be reduced by 19 per cent to 275 lawyers per 100,000 as is the case in Alberta, according Larouche. In Ontario that number stands at 339, a figure that precipitated an articling crisis in the early 2010s which in turn prompted the Law Society of Upper Canada to create the Law Practice Program (LPP), an alternative to articling.

Besides quotas, the Young Bar is also calling on the Barreau du Québec to provide “ongoing, reliable and detailed” information on articling and job prospects so that students can make informed choices. “Information is key,” said Larouche, adding that the U.S. experience is instructive. By 2013, the American legal employment crisis was plainly evident as only 56 per cent of graduates found a full-time position practicing law. As news surfaced over the dismal articling and employment prospects, student enrolment in law schools dropped from over 100,000 in 2004 to an estimated 55,000 in 2015. “The worst enemy that a law student or graduate faces are his expectations and the image he has of the profession,” said Larouche. “There is a disparity between the expectations students have while at university and what’s taking place in the market.”

But Jordan Furlong, an Ottawa-based lawyer, analyst and consultant, believes that the Young Bar’s recommendation to impose quotas coupled with its call to be more transparent over job prospects is “really designed to thin the herd,” and could very easily be interpreted as protectionism. He also points out that studies indicate that approximately 85 per cent of potential legal needs are unfilled in Canada, a finding that the Young Bar’s report alludes to as well. “So you can make the case to say that there aren’t enough lawyer jobs,” said Furlong. “What we do need are lawyers who are trained, equipped and educated in ways to meet that unmet demand and serve that untapped market. So there is a disconnect with the idea that there are too many lawyers because some of them can’t find jobs or there are too many lawyers because there is heavy price competition.”

The Young Bar recognizes that a rise in the number of lawyers has not made justice more accessible. That’s why it’s calling on universities to review their programs and teach law “differently than it was 100 years ago.” Both universities and the Bar School need to reflect the diversity of practices and changes in legal demand, adds the report, which also recommends business administration training for law students.

“These are serious challenges,” noted Furlong. “Reviewing and revising curriculums is an excellent idea. Finding ways to incorporate hands-on experience for students is a good idea. What law schools can really use is more exposure to clients, to the people who actually receive legal services. Most law students never met a purchaser. The first time they ever see them, possibly, is during an articling term. We need to expose them to buyers, clients, and markets much earlier.”

That is exactly what the Universite de Sherbrooke’s Faculty of Law is now looking into for its undergraduate program, said Dean Sébastien Lebel-Grenier. In many ways the report by the Young Bar substantiated the “gamble” the faculty took at the turn of the century by offering a plethora of specialized graduate programs in areas such as alternative dispute resolution, international law, and law and health policy – most of which emphasize practical skills training. “We believe that our students need to develop an expertise to be able to stand out and respond to more specific market demands,” said Lebel-Grenier. The graduate programs have proven to be a hit: in 2000 there were barely 150 students compared to well over 600 today. Now Lebel-Grenier and his team are examining ways to incorporate practical skills training and considering business training for its undergraduate law program.  “But universities cannot focus on practical skills to the detriment of imparting legal knowledge,” warned Lebel-Grenier.

The Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Law too is reviewing its undergraduate program to better respond to the needs of its students and the job market, said associate dean for faculty affairs and continuing education Paul Daly who found some of the findings of the Young Bar’s report to be “quite striking.” “If people are leaving the profession, that’s both a problem and an opportunity,” said Daly. “An opportunity in the sense that law faculties have to be able to better adapt their teaching to the reality that many students will not end up practicing law. It’s a problem in some sense if students come to law schools with the intention of becoming lawyers and then finding their path blocked in some ways, perhaps by the lack of availability of articling positions for instance.”

In spite of the dire situation facing new lawyers, Larouche is optimistic that law faculties, the Quebec Bar and its School, and even the Ministry of Justice can work together to come up with solutions. “We have hit the wall even though the situation is not as critical as in Ontario or the U.S. But we must act quickly,” said Larouche.

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