The Resurgence of Articled Clerks

It’s a topic that we’ve touched on before here at the blog, but the increasingly difficult and competitive job market for law graduates is being compounded by what many in the industry (that is, the employers) consider to be a less suitable field of candidates for the jobs that are going.

That loss of competitiveness and suitability of candidates has lead to increasing struggles at the regional and local law firm level in being able to fill positions with suitable candidates. Even worse, the ability to retain those employees has decreased with what is widely considered to be the employment mobility of the current generation.

Victorian officeWhile the large corporate law firms seemingly continue their revolving door-esque employment policies of yesteryear, small to mid-teir firms must look to alternative pathways to successfully recruit and keep their employees. Little wonder then that more than one or two firms are returning to a tried and it must be said, trusted system for bringing people into the law and achieving qualifications.

The articled clerk, sometimes referred to as a person who is “articling” is traditionally an apprentice in a professional firm. The term had currency, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries and came to be most commonly associated with the legal profession. The name comes from the practice of having a clerk sign a contract, known as “articles of clerkship” committing to a fixed period of employment. During that period of time they would work as a pupil of the solicitor, who undertakes, by articles of clerkship, continuing education, training and instruction in the principles of the profession (Wharton’s Law).

In Australia, the alternative pathway to a career in the law is to enter into a course of study with each state’s legal profession board (such as the Legal Profession Admissions Board in New South Wales) at the conclusion of which the individual is able to gain admission to practice. Combined with articles of clerkship, such people enter into the profession having had, often, years of experience accrued – in working closely with an individual professional of seniority.

This “apprentice” approach to learning the profession and practice of a lawyer has unique opportunities for both employee and employer. It guarantees the employer will have a clerk for a set period of time (renewable as the parties see fit) and that anyone employed in such a role will not be lost to the ether of being poached or otherwise being trained up for the benefit of the next lawyer employer. It also means that the employee has a way to effectively combine study with professional work, obtain a meaningful income and be able to proceed into the profession in a way that is more directed than the omnibus curriculum of modern day law schools.

Moreover, as has been seen in many fields and even the law’s own illustrious history, the relationship of apprentice to master practitioner has always generated unique opportunities for a business to engender loyalty, foster development and mentoring and ensure a higher level of access to the profession than the current system of ATAR scores and tertiary education costs might provide. This benefits not only the employer and the employee but also the wider community.

With greater-than-ever pressure upon law firms to be profitable while maintaining legacy planning, the need to look to an alternative approach to recruitment has become urgent. As practitioners proceed down such alternative approaches, the pressure upon law schools to improve the results of their education will increase. Perhaps, eventually, a happy medium can be regained. For now, the jury remains out.

Aaron Kernaghan