home Editorial, Osgoode News 10 Months [an Unpaid Worker]: An Opinion About Unpaid Articling Positions

10 Months [an Unpaid Worker]: An Opinion About Unpaid Articling Positions

[Editor’s note: The author of this article informed me that they have recently landed a paid articling position, and has asked me to mention that holding out for paid positions is worth the effort.  Congrats to him/her, whoever he/she is.

Editor’s note: Online title has been edited, for a variety of reasons.]

Articling: a necessary stepping-stone in the legal licensing process. Mandatory in many commonwealth jurisdictions, its purpose is to allow incoming legal professionals an opportunity to “wet their feet” in the swimming pool of law. However, this swimming pool is running out of space. The yearly increase in the volume of graduating students has caused a significant decrease in the per-capita availability of articling positions. Traditionally, firms of all sizes hired students to pass on the torch of legal knowledge, all the while providing fair compensation for fair work produced by their students. Not all firms, however, can afford students. But students still need articling, and some firms—unethical firms—capitalize on this need by offering unpaid articling positions. This is not to say that all such firms are unethical, but there are some that can afford to pay students and choose not to.

In writing this opinion, I wish to share some of the insights I have discovered throughout my articling search process. Now, as I have significant legal and research experience, as well as above-average grades, I have had the fortune of securing multiple interviews. At the get-go of the official articling recruit, I experienced misfortune by running into the “Olympic-sportsman” dilemma: fourth place, and nothing to show for it. This led me to solicit many other firms, both large and small, in search of an articling position. Out of four “hidden-market” interviews I had, three indicated that the position would be unpaid. Two of the firms were generous in stating the unpaid status at the outset of their interviews. One firm, however, waited until the end to drop the “we will pay you in experience,” and had the audacity to suggest that I should be grateful for the $1,500 monthly stipend they were offering (which would depend on my performance and the hours I put in). I have also noticed that in the past month, many more places have started advertising that they are offering unpaid articling positions, indicating that only the best and most highly-qualified would be contacted to partake in the privilege of working 60-90 hours a week for this saint-like generosity.

Okay, so at this point you might ask me: why do I have a problem with this? Glad you asked. It’s unethical. Students are required to complete articling. The only way they can complete articling is by working in a legal environment. While working in said environment, they will slowly – but surely – provide that environment with some benefit and some profit. Granted, articling students tend to mess up once in a while, and often do not make the firm as much money as an associate would, but students are still required to put in the same (if not a greater) amount of work. You are expected to be the first one in the office. You are expected to be the last one leaving the office. You are expected to do the dirty work, come in on weekends, and work 60+ hours a week. Therefore, you are effectively a slave, labouring for 10 months to meet licensing requirements. You are just another number in the constantly-revolving door of free labour in unpaid articling, tossed onto the street after your term and replaced by a similar unsuspecting victim. Even though this effort might not bring a firm as much profit as associates would, firms need to be cognizant that students have to worry about taking an additional 10 months to pay living expenses, cover costs, and start paying off their abysmal tuition expenses (especially at Osgoode).

But here’s the part I find most unethical: it stunts the self-worth of the incoming generation of lawyers. How are you supposed to feel that any of the work you do—or will do in the future— means anything when you’re not being rewarded for it? This conversation actually went down during one of my interviews:

Partner:                  So, Mr. [Anon], why do you think we should pay you?

Me:                         Well, I believe that my work has value to it, and if my work has value, I should be rewarded for that value.

Partner:                  Value? What possible value could you bring to this firm as an articling student?

I’m typically well-composed at interviews, but this question stunned me. When I had collected myself, I proceeded to tell the Partner an experience I had in my 2L summer job, where I worked with a small-claims litigant and helped her save over $5,000 by independently negotiating on her behalf with the company suing her. Sure, that may have been a one-in-a-million opportunity, but was that work not of value? Even if I did not pull that win off, or if I were to be working in a firm where articling students are not allowed to even come close to clients, is it really accurate to say that my potential to become an amazing lawyer is not something of value to bring to the firm? Is articling not meant to be an investment?

That, in a nutshell, is the worst part of unpaid articling: it stems from the notion that we as students have no value. That simply is not true. Regardless of your grades, experience, or overall confidence, everyone who comes to bat in the legal profession carries some level of value through the sheer courage and chutzpah it took to get this far. If anything, THAT should be worth something.

The reality, however, is that a lot of firms still won’t see it this way. They will claim that they’re generously helping students overcome this licensing requirement by graciously offering their time to mentor and groom such students into the legal profession. Don’t get me wrong: that is indeed a valuable commitment on their end. But don’t for a second think that that’s enough. We are not just students; we are individuals with debts, personal expenses, and expectations of reward for hard labour.

So what’s the solution? I honestly don’t know. The reality is that a mandate forcing firms to pay for articling—even minimum wage—would further decrease the limited number of positions, effectively making this crisis worse. As disappointing as I think it is, people do need to fulfil their articling requirement to practice. The funny thing—as I’ve discussed with many of my new colleagues—is that after articling, job prospects are not looking too bright either. Personally, I think we really should focus on a de-saturation of the market. Increasing the amount of lawyers for the sake of access to justice is nice and all, but let’s not forget that these lawyers also need to eat (and pay off their ridiculous tuitions!). Perhaps we should not keep increasing class sizes. Perhaps letting Ryerson open up their own law school would be the most moronic thing in Toronto since Metrolinx gave Bombardier the TTC-expansion contract.

If you’ve read this far, I do want you to know that you—as a future articling student—bring value and worth with you. If you think that I’m preaching from a high horse: trust me, I’m not. I’m still looking for articling. I have turned down all three unpaid positions. Not because I think that I’m the next Ian Binnie, but because I recognize that my future legal work will mean something. That, if nothing else, I want my work to represent my personal value.