On These enhancements were approved and set to be implemented by May 2021. Since 2018, students and employers have been anticipating and planning for the minimum wage to take effect. Now, despite Convocation’s prior approval, the enhancement’s implementation is uncertain.
Community outreach led by the Law Students’ Society of Ontario (LSSO) continues to show overwhelming student support for a mandatory minimum wage. On average, indebted third year law students in Ontario carry $84,000 in loans and as a group are particularly prone to exploitation. With articling students exempt from the Employment Standards Act, 2000, and its associated wage protections, 10-15 per cent of placements are currently projected to be underpaid or unpaid.
An encouraged — but not mandatory — minimum wage tacitly approves of unpaid articling placements. A vote to approve the mandatory minimum wage policy will bring the LSO closer to facilitating basic worker’s rights for licensing candidates.
At a basic level, a mandatory minimum wage for articling students would ensure that all articling students across the province are earning income while contributing to the legal profession and practising lawyers. Indebted students entering the licensing process are responsible for maintaining significant debt and financial burdens.
On average, the majority of the debt law students carry is in the form of interest-bearing loans that require payment upon graduation. Government loans do not acknowledge articling as a continued form of education. For example, interest starts accruing on Ontario Student Assistance Program loans, and the capital needs to start being repaid during the articling term. Many students’ private bank student lines-of-credit close on graduation while interest on the loan continues to accumulate. On top of these costs, licensing candidates further incur almost $5,000 in licensing fees the LSO itself charges. Licensing candidates also continue to have basic living costs.
The preliminary results of the LSSO’s National Tuition Study indicate that law students in Ontario are shouldering the heaviest debt load compared to law students in other provinces. A mandatory minimum wage for articling placements ensures that articling students in Ontario are able to at least maintain their accumulated debt and basic financial obligations.
The elected benchers of the LSO have a mandate to act in the public interest. Ensuring articling is accessible and protecting the well-being of articling students in Ontario is in the public interest. Walking away from a mandatory minimum wage will most heavily impact low-income, indebted licensing candidates, and especially those with caregiving and familial responsibilities.
Unpaid work lowers articling students’ morale and leaves highly indebted licensing candidates to start their career at a distinct disadvantage, leading to significant tolls on candidates’ mental health and wellness. In the LSSO’s outreach efforts, the team heard from former articling students who struggled working multiple jobs while articling for free. Unpaid placements can hinder candidates’ ability to work in a way that reflects their full potential.
Further, recruitment can be an unpredictable process leaving many high-quality candidates without a placement secured. The Law Practice Program (LPP) offers an alternative pathway to licensure. However, the LPP is equally burdensome as placements are generally unpaid and the program itself carries additional costs (the Law Practice Program fee is currently $2,800, plus applicable taxes). A mandatory minimum wage floor means vulnerable students left without a placement after recruitment will not be subjected to unpaid articling in their pathway to licensure. Ultimately, limiting unpaid placements and mandating a minimum wage is a matter of treating incoming members of the profession with basic decency.
Overwhelmingly, the pandemic has not changed the motivations for the mandatory minimum wage. Students expected to see the 2018 package implemented by May 2021. The reversal on the mandatory minimum wage issue has students questioning the significance of Convocation’s resolutions and the legitimacy of lengthy community consultations whose results are ultimately not implemented.
The principles upon which the 2018 articling enhancements were premised remain sound. It is the LSO’s responsibility to address articling position shortages through means other than by condoning free labour. Unpaid labour is not the answer.
We urge the law society to consider alternatives to addressing the problem of articling position shortages in Ontario, without allowing for unpaid placements. Denying a mandatory minimum wage altogether cannot be the solution. The legitimate concerns around the availability of articling positions should be addressed while still ensuring that articling students are compensated for their labour.
The LSSO urges Convocation and the LSO to fulfil its earlier commitment and implement the approved mandatory minimum salary for articling students.
Help inform the Law Society of Ontario benchers how they should cast their vote on the issue of a minimum wage for articling students. E-mail your views to individual benchers and cc the LSSO at email@example.com.
Ocean Enbar is the president of the Law Students’ Society of Ontario and a 3L English common law student at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. Jenny Zhou is the vice-president, external, of the Law Students’ Society of Ontario and a 3L business and law dual degree student at Western Law.