Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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It Takes a Village to Raise an Articling Student

It Takes a Village to Raise an Articling Student

Let’s hear it for the articling students in Alberta! We know that you have worked hard to get where you are, and that you are rising up to meet new challenges in your current roles (or to find a current role).

On Monday, March 11th, one cohort of Alberta articling students will enter their PREP Capstone, with another large contingent entering Capstone the following week. Capstone involves showing competency in practice simulator legal work. This may not be a definitive explanation of the four-day event, but it will work for the purposes of this blog.

Many lawyers have been surprised to discover that articling students no longer write a series of bar exams. I was part of this group several years ago when I switched from being a small practitioner (as in too small to have an articling student!) to becoming part of the professional lawyer support community. For many of us, practising law and living our lives distanced us from how articling students are being trained and examined for formal admission into our profession.

When I was an articling student, we spent the month of May at either the University of Calgary law school (remember the purple moot courtroom) or the University of Alberta law school receiving lectures from practising lawyers about key things to know in practice areas. In 1990 and 1991, I taught due diligence in commercial transactions to law students in Calgary. I ran into a junior high school classmate who I hadn’t seen for years who was a bit disdainful about the fact that I was still involved in due diligence, belaying a lack of understanding of how you moved from being a document grunt to leading document grunts, which I really enjoyed.

We wrote one series of exams in mid-May and the second at the end of the month. They were like law school exams, but we were allowed certain resources (like the Rules of Court) while other content was to memorize (like key attributes of main administrative tribunals.) We studied our hearts out, regurgitated it, and then hoped we would never write another exam. I loved learning new materials, and I didn’t find the actual writing of exams stressful (as opposed to the studying and putting your life on hold), but I swore I would never write another exam. Thirty-seven years (almost) later, I have not written another exam—I just knew I was done with that part of my life.

There were many iterations of the Alberta bar course before Alberta and a few other provinces united under the Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education (CPLED.) I heard or saw the term periodically but had no reason to look behind the acronym and had no context for the idea that students performed work through the articling year without a final exam. I was shocked. How could a professional regulatory body determine whether candidates had the required amount of knowledge without a comprehensive exam? It turns out the fields of education and assessment, in the professional context, have progressed to new models and that rote regurgitation of memorized materials is no longer an appropriate standard, so students now perform law practice tasks to demonstrate competency. There is no formal bar exam, but rather a four-day Capstone project where students complete mandatory tasks including effectively interviewing clients, considering alternate resolution strategies, and drafting binding legal agreements.

Other things have changed for articling students—you no longer have to complete a rotation or be exposed to specified areas of law. The focus is now on being able to learn how to approach new tasks and work products rather than showing mastery of a handful of areas. This makes sense, although it flies in the face of everything in my legal education.

Articling students still work hard and face a demanding volume of work—none of us older lawyers can say that young lawyers and students lack a work ethic or dedication to their chosen profession. Assist knows that these demands can cause stress and distress, and we have a focused communication strategy to ensure that they know how we can help them. We didn’t have a support network like Assist when I articled, and we didn’t talk about stress, distress, and crisis. We were very much conditioned into the model that if we pretended that these things didn’t exist, they wouldn’t happen to us—but this approach was a resounding failure. Current articling students are much more in touch with their mental health which is both appropriate and necessary.

One unfortunate change for articling students is that a number of students are terminated from their positions each year. When I was a student, I wasn’t aware of any students who were let go mid-articles, but we would all have assumed that they had done something heinous since an articling contract was for twelve months and, of course, lawyers would honour the terms of contracts they enter into, right?

But then I heard about students whose firms blew up, with lawyers splintering in different directions, fighting about all sorts of things including what would happen to their articling student. I was grateful that this didn’t happen to me, but students generally found new positions, no doubt after explaining the circumstances that led to their being cut loose.

So, it can happen that students lose their positions due to circumstances beyond their control, and we all need to ensure that we don’t attach old baggage to new students experiencing the distress of becoming unemployed mid-articles.

I know that many students now face termination of their articling positions--which is disconcerting—because they call Assist for support. Articling students start at different times of the year now—according to the Law Society of Alberta’s annual report (2022), there were 474 articling students in Alberta in 2022, 28% of whom were trained internationally and 72% of whom who attended Canadian law schools. Thirty-six percent of the internationally trained students were Canadians who attended law schools outside of Canada, with the remainder being lawyers who lived, studied and practiced in another country. Students who did not attend a Canadian law school must have their qualifications reviewed by the National Committee on Accreditation (NCA), so they start at various times of year depending on whether they need to take additional courses or exams.

Because of this, it is hard for me to measure where articling students are relative to completing their 12 months of articles since there isn’t a standard start date, but I believe I have talked to eight to ten students in the last several months whose employment was terminated. I don’t know how many students have spoken to our professional counsellors because we collect data on a less granular basis to preserve confidentiality, so Assist may have helped more than ten students—it could be twenty but who knows?

Students whose articles are terminated are devastated. They often have financial concerns when their income is disrupted suddenly. They grieve the loss of the job which was going to help them gain entry into the legal profession, and their self-esteem takes a huge hit, and they experience stress, distress and, sometimes, crisis. Sometimes students are let go because the principal can no longer afford to pay them, but often they are provided with “feedback” in a destructive, rather than constructive, way.

I talk to students who tell me their principals called them “dumb” or “stupid.” A few have used the same term, that the student is a “zero,” terminology I haven’t heard since the 1990s. I hear about principals who make students feel inadequate because they don’t know how to complete basic legal practice tasks—but articling is when they are supposed to learn these things. Very few students, unless they had coveted summer student jobs, know how to operationalize the legal theory they learned in law school. I am so disappointed when a student is told that they are being let go because they can’t perform practical tasks. Articling students are not cheap junior lawyers—they need to be trained to practice law. When a principal tells a student that they aren’t of much use because they can’t practice law, it reflects on the principal’s lack of understanding of what articling is more so than on the student’s ability and potential.

Principals are required to complete a mandatory three-hour online training course. I am baffled that intelligent people sit through this course yet still believe in belittling articling students, yelling at them and degrading them in various ways.

I know that the Alberta legal community is filled with lawyers who care about each other and our profession and who want to ensure that vulnerable articling students have a fair chance to prove that they deserve to be here. I am incredibly grateful to our peer support volunteers who step in, when asked, to meet with terminated articling students to make helpful suggestions about resumes and cover letters or to provide personal support. This week, one of our wonderful peer support volunteers invited an articling student who is now jobless, to a legal community event for free. I know our volunteers wish we could wave a collective magic wand and ensure that all articling students had access to viable and valuable entry level positions, yet there is only so much any of us as individuals can do.

What can each one of us do, both to help students whose jobs are terminated as well as all articling students?

Let’s start by acknowledging that while articling and PREP may be different from what we experienced, it is still very stressful, and articling students are deserving of support to get through challenging life experiences. Instead of figuratively rolling our eyes when students talk about their stress, we can engage with our memories of the stress we felt as articling students. Yes, many of us have had increasingly stressful situations as our responsibilities for legal matters intensified, but articling is extremely stressful for the amount of training students have at the time. We all of have some memories of some embarrassing blunder we committed—please try to remember how you felt and engage your empathy.

Secondly, we don’t have to know how to solve the stressed articling student’s problem. But we can listen with compassion and try to relate what the student is telling us with our own experiences, and we can share the strategies we implemented when we faced adversity.

Most of all, we want to help students in difficult situations to find hope. When we have hope that things can get better (“you will get another job, you will complete PREP, you will get called to the bar”), we can equip students to move forward. When you lack hope, you become immobilized.

And if you hear about an articling student who has been let go, let’s try not to assume that the articling student has done anything more than be an articling student who needs to learn to practice law. Let’s approach these students on the assumption that, with proper training, they can practice law safely and effectively, and let’s help them meet more lawyers who may know someone who might want or need an articling student.

Composite articles are more common these days, and articling students can be better equipped for general practice when they work in more than one firm over the course of their articles. Please consider if you have three months or so of work that a student could do under your supervision. And if you know of any opportunities, please tell us at the Assist office so that we can share them with the students in our midst.

Assist is in the midst of our articling student callout. Our volunteers are placing calls to more than 500 articling students, but we need more helpers. Most students tell our volunteers that they have been under stress but are coping, and they are very grateful for the kind phone call. When our volunteers encounter a student who is experiencing stress and distress, they can refer the student to our other programs or call me for guidance, and if a student is experiencing harassment and discrimination, they can also look to the Law Society’s Articling Placement Program. Do you have an hour you could spend calling say, perhaps five, articling students? You may make an incredible difference in a student’s life and career development.

For all articling students who are heading into Capstones in March, I want to wish you success. You have built a broad base for your legal skills with your law school training, and now your articling experiences and PREP to date have equipped with the practical skills being assessed in the Capstone. You can do this.

But if you need some extra support—just call Assist’s professional counselling service (1-877-498-6898, which includes 24/7 crisis counselling by calling the Registered Psychologist whose number is on the after-hours recorded message) or our peer support line at 1-877-737-5508 so we can connect with warm and compassionate peer support volunteers.