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Hebenstreit: Has the Time Come for Articling?

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IBA-hebenstreitDo you know what the term “articling” means? I did not until recently, but it is quite relevant to the discussions swirling around about the value and importance of a law school education.

The American Bar Association held its Annual Conference in Toronto, Ontario recently. Many have asked why a group of American lawyers would want to travel to Canada for a conference, but that is not the real point. As part of participating in the sessions for Bar leaders, I attended a forum concerning the similarities and differences of Bar Associations (or “law associations” as they are frequently referred to north of the border) in Canada and the States. One of the speakers was a gentleman who was the Immediate Past President of the Toronto Lawyers’ Association. It was interesting learning the differences between the 2 common law systems including that the Canadian trial lawyers actual “robe” to enter the courtroom.

What was most interesting for me was the concept of articling. It is founded on a medieval practice but is still practiced in Canada. After the typical 3 year law school education, the Canadian students still must pass the equivalent of the bar exam. But, to sit for the exam, they need to complete essentially a one year apprenticeship. During the period of articling, they attend the equivalent of our Bar Review course, but are not allowed to sit for the exam until they complete their articling responsibilities.

It sounds very similar to the traditional practice here in the States where a firm selects a second year student as a clerk and then hires that student to serve the apprenticeship after law school. The Canadian graduates are typically paid and are under the tutelage of an experienced attorney. There are apparently no real rules about how detailed the mentorship needs to be, but those with whom I spoke felt they received good value from the articling students—and typically hired them after successfully completing the Bar Exam. The law schools help to pair their students with a mentor, but it really is up to the student to find a mentor. Also, there is a limit to how many years within which a student must complete their articling requirement, so it is entirely possible that a student could never find a good match and consequently not be able to even sit for the exam.

Here in the States, there is growing concern about the high cost of a law school education as well as the concern that law students do not learn how to practice law in the traditional law school. I am not sure how that is different from 1977 when I graduated from IU Law School at Indianapolis. There were internships available, but upon graduation, I did not know how to practice—nor did I expect that. The culture, at least as I saw it, was that law school educated a student to understand legal principles as well as how to think like a lawyer. It was up to us to figure out what to do with it.

Certainly, the cost of a legal education was dramatically cheaper than it is now. Some student loan payments equal what our first monthly mortgage payment was. That truly is unfortunate. Students still have to figure out what to do with their education. The economic pressure is greater, but the problem is the same.

Much has been written about the cost of a legal education compared with the practical applications of that same education. Some writers have accused the law schools of deceit in enticing students into paying for law school when there are no jobs for them upon graduation. This seems a bit silly. If we believe that the students are smart enough to graduate from a law school, aren’t they smart enough to determine if it is a good course of action to take?

This year we have met with Dean Gary Roberts concerning whether or not the law school should be an institution of higher learning or a mere trade school. It is a conundrum because on the one hand, the schools would like to be more responsive to the needs of their graduates, but they still must meet the requirements of accreditation-- and national rankings are still important. The primary thrust of our discussions revolved around what is essentially a form of articling—some way that the mentors of the IndyBar could, or would, agree to provide some form of apprenticeship for the students. Those talks will continue, but perhaps we should look to our Canadian brothers and sisters for guidance.

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