How Long Should the Articling Term Be?

Most of the semi-permanent controversy concerning articling revolves around whether it should be retained as a requirement for lawyer licensure, and if so, how the profession can ensure there are enough articling opportunities for all licensure candidates. Rarely discussed, but relevant to both inquiries, is a simpler question: How long should the articling term last?

It’s revealing that there’s no single answer to that question. Currently, most Canadian jurisdictions impose a 12-month or 52-week articling period, which may include time spent in a bar admission course. In Ontario, however, the articling term is ten months long, and in British Columbia, it’s nine. There is no obvious reason for this discrepancy. It cannot be the case that it takes a candidate in Saskatchewan or PEI longer than one in BC to fulfil the requirements of articling.

But those aren’t the only disparities. In Québec, where the Barreau du Québec’s École du Barreau trains candidates in a wide range of practice skills, the articling period is only six months. Similarly, for candidates in Ontario’s optional Law Practice Program, who undergo an intensive four-month training program, the subsequent legal work placement is just four months long.

All this variation would suggest that the required length of the articling term in Canada is relatively arbitrary. Indeed, many jurisdictions shortened the length of their articling terms during the pandemic, and afterward reported no ill effects on the quality of the experience. Those jurisdictions have now restored the longer standard period, but it raises the question: If articling was once satisfactorily completed in eight months, why does it once again require 12?

I submit that the lengths of articling terms in Canada are almost entirely conventional. They date back more than a century, long before the first academic or scientific inquiries into the proper parameters for professional learning experiences. I’m not aware of any studies or other evidence to recommend any particular period of time for an articling term. But nor do I think any such studies would be especially useful.

That’s because the point of an articling term is not to “put in your time” or “pay your dues,” much as some of our profession’s crankiest members might like to think. The point of articling (if there is one at all) is to provide licensure candidates the opportunity to apply — in a law practice and client service environment and under the supervision of an experienced practitioner — the knowledge and skills they have acquired during their legal education, and thereby prove to themselves and the licensing authority their competence and readiness to practise law.

Viewed from this perspective, it becomes clearer that the question about articling should not be, “Has it gone on long enough?”, but “Has the candidate proven their competence and readiness?” And when you make that the question, you come to realize that the length of time is almost immaterial. What matters is whether competence and readiness have been established.

How could we rearrange the articling process to ask and answer this better question? In my 2022 report on lawyer licensing for the Law Society of British Columbia, I proposed a process for accomplishing this goal (pp. 69-75):

  1. Create a Competence Framework for lawyers that identifies the knowledge, skills, and experience a lawyer should demonstrably possess at the entry point of licensing. (The western law societies are in the process of doing just that, with the Western Canada Competency Profile.)
  2. Draw up a standard Supervised Practice Plan that includes the complete list of entry-point competencies, a further list of suggested activities by which an articling candidate could demonstrate a sufficient number (say, 70%) of those competencies, and a series of measures by which the candidate’s supervising lawyer could assess whether the candidate has successfully demonstrated those competencies.
  3. Instruct the candidate and their supervisor to jointly customize the standard Supervised Practice Plan at the start of the articling period, identifying which competencies will be developed, the planned activities by which they will be developed, and the measures by which the supervisor will assess whether the candidate has demonstrated those competencies.
  4. The candidate and supervisor should meet at least every two months to gauge the candidate’s progress towards the goals and make any revisions necessary to the goals or activities. The supervisor should file a notice with the regulator after each meeting to provide an update on progress. When the supervisor and candidate both believe readiness has been reached, then the articling period can come to an end.

The ultimate test of licensure is whether the candidate is, taking everything into consideration, ready to be a lawyer. That point will be reached sooner in some articling experiences and later in others; it’s up to the candidate and supervisor to meet, assess, and agree on the candidate’s progress towards this point.

Some duration standards are advisable, however. If no minimum amount of time is set, the candidate and supervisor could prematurely agree to an early approval, in order for the candidate to be licensed and start working and billing as a lawyer. If no maximum amount is set, the supervisor could keep the candidate in perpetual indentured servanthood, unfairly delaying their admission to the bar.

Accordingly, the regulator should set minimum and maximum periods of time for an articling period — I suggest no fewer than four months and no more than 12. As an additional check on abuse, the supervising lawyer’s affirmation that the candidate is ready for licensure should be viewed as an undertaking to the regulator, with serious professional consequences for those supervisors who fudge or hurry the process.

Implementing this change to articling could help resolve the second of the two issues raised at the start of this article: the availability of articling positions. If supervising lawyers know that they could turn their articling students into lawyers as early as four to six months into their tenure, they might be more willing to make that investment (the “professional undertaking” clause is especially important here).

And this change could also help settle the first and most critical issue with articling: Is it even worth doing? A competence- and readiness-based approach to articling could clear up any doubt as to its necessity and legitimacy.

If we know what entry-point competence looks like, and if a member of the Bar has certified exactly in what ways that competence has been achieved, then articling can truly be said to be preparing lawyers for practice and advancing the public interest in reliable and accurate legal service from lawyers.

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