Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Every Articling Student Matters

Every Articling Student Matters

Ahh—spring. The time, traditionally, when articling students’ thoughts turn to bar admission ceremonies and life as lawyers. Times change, and in 2023, 30% of articling students received their legal education outside of Canada, meaning that they are not on what many of us think of as the conventional articling calendar. In fact, PREP, the current iteration of the bar admission course, has two schedules with different entry dates with Capstone—the assessment week—occurring over five different weeks in both September and March. Some students complete accelerated PREP before articling, and some students commence articles on timetables that work for them. Just check the screens the next time you are at the courthouse: bar admissions are happening throughout the year.

At Assist, we are concerned about articling students—we encounter many through our different programs, including our articling student callout—and we know the stress that they are under, especially at crunch times like Capstone week. There is stress associated with doing new tasks, and not feeling competent but having to tough it out appearing to be confident, and there is stress associated with not knowing if you will continue to be employed, especially when you are carrying a large debt load.

In 2019, the Law Societies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, with the assistance of a CRIC Accredited research Agency, conducted an Articling Student Survey. The results were shocking for many Alberta lawyers—students felt ill-prepared for law practice, and about a third reported that they experienced harassment or discrimination during their articles or during the recruitment process. I have a different window into the experiences of Alberta students due to the work Assist does. I wasn’t shocked by the numbers because they confirmed what I was hearing—but harassment and discrimination are unacceptable and articling students do not deserve disrespectful, harassing and discriminatory treatment.

Because these results have become dated, and to evaluate the success of remedial measures initiated by the Law Society, a new survey has been commissioned. You can learn more about it here.  The survey invites lawyers who mentor articling students to participate to share their experiences. It assumes that lawyers who complete the survey are employed in the same firm as the articling student, so I had to answer “not applicable” to many questions at the beginning, but there are fields which are appropriate for those of us who mentor students externally. Please complete the form if you are concerned about this issue—it takes about 15 minutes.

As a person who did not have a conventional articling experience, I think that the training inherent in good articling programs is extremely important, and I hope that our regulator will find a way to ensure that meaningful training experiences continue to be provided to our newest colleagues. I clerked at the Court of Appeal and Court of Queen’s Bench, as it then was. Court articles were, and still are, ten months at the court and five months at a law firm. But back in my day, articling students attended the Bar Course for the month of May, so I lost one of my law firm months. I effectively had four months of articles, while most of my contemporaries had eleven. As a result, I did not get a broad exposure to areas of practice—I never did a will or a real estate deal, for example. I selected my practice area, and the trajectory of my career based on an inadequate sample.

In Alberta’s current articling design, students are not required to gather experience in predetermined areas of law—the focus is on competencies, or legal skills which will equip a new lawyer to apply themselves to new areas of law, which then flow into lawyer competencies built into lawyers’ continuing education framework.

Softer skills are included, which is important, since lawyers interact with human beings and, historically, the greatest number of complaints to the Law Society involve communication issues.

So, we have a framework to produce new lawyers which equips them to adapt to changing circumstances and practice areas. The Survey will help the powers-that-be determine if the current programs are working. But, more importantly, it will shine a light on the conditions articling students are facing.

In the 2019 Survey, harassment and discrimination were far too common. I don’t expect the results to be different in the 2024 survey because I am still hearing horror stories from articling students, some of whom will leave their positions because conditions are untenable while others will have their articles terminated for specious reasons or no reasons. All of these students are devastated, and their scars will remain for a long time.

Having conducted workplace harassment investigations for many years and having designed effective policies and practices, I am baffled that the legal profession continues to be plagued with unacceptable behaviour, but the answer is likely in lawyers’ unique individualism—we all think we can run our practices in whatever way works for us without interference from a regulator.

But our rights and freedoms have limits, and I am fond of the quotation that I attribute to Jack McCoy from the original Law and Order show that your rights end where someone else’s nose begins. It looks like this expression goes back to Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Stuart Mill —it is an old concept in our legal system but still very valid!

Lawyers’ rights to run their practices their way is important—but these rights stop short of harming other people, with harassment and discrimination being a metaphor for the swing to the nose.

Lawyers and law firms are subject to Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act which requires organizations to have a respectful workplace policy, and the Law Society provides a template respectful workplace policy as well. Are principals asked to provide a copy of their respectful workplace policy when they apply to be principals? Similarly, both discrimination and harassment also violate Alberta’ Human Rights legislation. Ignorance of the law, we all know, is no excuse.

The Law Society has a special protocol for the reporting of harassment and discrimination, and lawyers have been disciplined for harassment and discrimination. It may not happen as often as we think it should, but it does happen, and we need to ensure that vulnerable members of our community know this.

I was thinking about all this earlier this week as I was researching something else, and I saw a reference to a Book of Authorities for Law Society disciplinary hearings. Being an inveterate snoop, I began scrolling through the cited cases and found four Alberta hearings where lawyers (including an articling student) were disciplined for harassment. There are much better research methods, but I just stumbled on these four, which are unlikely to be the only harassment decisions.

Are lawyers who apply to become principals provided with copies of existing Law Society jurisprudence about harassment and discrimination?

If an articling student believes they have experienced harassment or discrimination, I would urge them to do two things:

  • Call the Practice Advisors for advice —1-866-440-4640. Lay definitions of harassment and discrimination do not always align with case law, so discussing the details with the Practice Advisors can be very helpful. The Practice Advisors are a confidential resource—they cannot divulge information to others within the Law Society
  • Call Assist for professional counselling and/or peer support. You are not alone when you experience harassment and discrimination, and you can receive support from specially trained counsellors and other lawyers who have worked through the experience of being harassed or discriminated against.

The decision of whether to report harassment or discrimination is a profoundly personal matter—the individual must assess whether they feel they can handle the stress and distress of participating in a contested proceeding (in my experience, these issues are invariably contested, with the other party frequently making disparaging allegations against the complainant, so you have to go in with your eyes open.)

Those of us who are in positions of assisting students from outside their firms can help advocate for improved conditions from students. We have more articling students than ever, and we may now have more articling students than there are viable articling opportunities. Politically, we probably can’t limit the number of articling positions, but we can insist that principals are more accountable for learning how to be effective principals and that consequences of being a poor principal should be publicized, even if on an anonymous basis.

Heading into the first long weekend of summer, we all have a lot of things we would like to do—or that we must do (my garage is calling for its annual cleaning, alas.) But if you are a student, if you are a principal, or if you are a lawyer who has provided support or mentorship to students, please take fifteen minutes to complete the articling survey. Conditions can only get better if we take the time to identify the problem and to enunciate potential solutions.

Have a wonderful May long weekend!