The Never-Ending Debate: What should be required in order to become a lawyer?

(First published on slaw.ca)

The qualifications required of new Ontario lawyers has been the subject of virtually continuous debate for generations. Starting in the late 1950s, being called to the bar required (i) a law school degree, (ii) practical training through the bar admissions course and (iii) an articling apprenticeship. The bar admissions course came to an end in the 2000s. A law practice program (the LLP) has recently been added as an alternative to articling. The qualifications debate continues with the focus now being whether articling and/or the LLP should continue and, if so, in what form. The central question today is what, other than licensing examinations and graduation from law school, should be required before the call to the bar.

The intent of this column is to provide context for current debate by focusing on the competence mandate of the Law Society and by laying out some of the relevant history and principles that may be useful in thinking about all of this.

My ultimate point is that this is a debate that will never end – because there are no perfect choices and the proponents of one option can always demonstrate frailties in the other options being considered. While it is tempting to press for radical change, it is very difficult to have confidence that the change will actually be an improvement. Keeping focused on the competence mandate, it seems to me the best approach is practical incremental change primarily designed to ensure that new lawyers are competent to serve the people of Ontario and taking care to see that candidates for licensing are treated properly.

A brief history of a relatively long time

Until 1957, the Law Society ran legal education and training in Ontario. After much controversy, an agreement was reached in 1957 whereby university law school education became a requirement. The articling apprenticeship continued. A bar admission course was established. According to the historian Christopher Moore, the establishment of the bar admission course “satisfied the benchers’ continuing requirement for practical training. It also pleased the universities by allowing them to narrow their focus to the purely academic teaching they preferred”[1].

For the next four decades, being called to the bar in Ontario required an academic LLB/JD, practical bar admission course training and exposure to the realities of practice through articling.

In the never-ending debate, the future of articling arose soon after the late 1950s reforms. In 1972, a recommendation was made to Convocation for the abolition of articling[2]. This recommendation was rejected and has again been rejected again on several occasions over the years.

By the late 2000s, the bar admission course had been entirely discontinued and two licensing examinations had been established, but articling continued.

With the substantial increase of candidates and insufficient growth in articling positions over the last 15 years, the LPP was added as an alternative to articling several years ago.

Whether the LPP and/or articling will continue and in what form continues to be debated.

The Mandate of the Law Society – why do we care about qualification to practice?

People who are served by professionals ordinarily need professional assistance because they do not have the expertise to serve themselves. They cannot assess whether someone else is professionally competent to serve them nor whether they have been properly served. This is the central reason that professional regulation exists.

Like all professional regulators, the Law Society has two central mandates; ensuring that members of the legal professions are competent and ensuring that members conduct themselves properly. These mandates are made clear in section 4.1 of the Law Society Act which provides that it is a function of the Law Society to ensure that:

all persons who practise law in Ontario or provide legal services in Ontario meet standards of learning, professional competence and professional conduct that are appropriate for the legal services they provide

The professional conduct mandate is pursued by establishing Rules of Professional Conduct, by dealing with professional misconduct by investigation and discipline and by promoting proper professional conduct by practice audits and reviews. Much attention has been spent in recent years on the conduct mandate recognizing that proper conduct is better attained by proactive measures rather than just by reactive disciplinary measures and by the recognition that the law firm policies, procedures and practices ae very important in achieving proper individual conduct.

The professional competence mandate may be thought of as having two aspects. The first is licensing, ensuring that entry-level competence is attained. The second is competence in practice, ensuring that competence is maintained and that specific competence is achieved for specific areas of professional work. Like the conduct mandate, there are a number of ways that the Law Society fulfils and can fulfil the competence mandate.

The Competence Mandate

The Law Society of Ontario has spent much time and effort reflecting on its competence mandate. Its 1994 Role Statement recognized the obligation to govern the profession in the public interest to ensure that the people of Ontario are served by lawyers who meet high standards of learning and competence.

In the late 1990s, the Law Society established two Competence Task Forces. The First Competence Task Force established a working definition of the competent lawyer[3] which is now reflected in the definition of a “competent lawyer” in Rule 3.1 of the Model Code of Professional Conduct and across Canada. As defined in the Model Code, a “competent lawyer” is “a lawyer who has and applies relevant knowledge, skills and attributes in a manner appropriate to each matter undertaken on behalf of a client and the nature and terms of the lawyer’s engagement”. The Model Code provides further particulars in its definition.

The Report of the Second Competence Task Force[4] proposed implementation of what it described as the “competence blueprint” which included focus on both pre-call and post-call learning. As the report said:

The post-call efforts of the profession to maintain and enhance its competence span a broad range of approaches, but virtually all of them engage education, whether it be through experiential learning, continuing legal education, self-study, or the pursuit of advice and mentoring. Pre-call learning is the foundation upon which a career long commitment to learning is constructed.

The bar admission course

Between the reports of the First and Second Competence Task Force, Convocation received and considered the Bar Admission Reform Report[5] which was expressly grounded in the Competence Mandate and the work of the Competence Task Force.

The Bar Admission Reform Report noted that the Bar Admission Course began in 1959 and that its then current form was mandated by Convocation in 1988 approving the “Spence Report”. Following graduation from law school, prospective lawyers undertook a three phase pre-call training program. The first phase was a one-month workshop-based practice skills program addressing professional responsibility and practice management, interviewing, legal research, legal writing and drafting, alternative dispute resolution and advocacy. The second phase was the articling year. The third phase was a three and one-half month seminar program focused on substantive and procedural law, lawyering skills, and how to complete transactions with written examinations. Attendance was originally mandatory but was merely “strongly encouraged” by 1998.

On delivery of the Bar Admission Reform Report, Convocation reaffirmed that there should continue to be “an effective and comprehensive bar admission education and training program” and that articling should be maintained.

To summarize, lawyers called to the bar in Ontario in the 1990s had three years of law school, twelve months of articling and four and one-half months of substantive, procedural and skills training for a total of over 16 months of post-law school legal training.

In late 2003, Convocation received the Report of the Task Force on the Continuum of Legal Education[6] which recommended continuation of articling for ten months but major changes to the bar admission program. Rather than substantive, procedural and skills training and assessment, a five week skills and professional responsibility program and assessment and two licencing examinations were approved. These licensing examinations continue as the Barrister and the Solicitor Examinations. In effect, the choice was made to test for substantive and procedural competence rather that to teach in those areas presumably on the basis either than law schools provided sufficient practical education and/or that students could learn enough on their own.

In 2007, Convocation established a Licensing and Accreditation Task Force which reported in January of 2008. In its consultation report[7], it was noted that the five week Skills and Professional Responsibility Program was reduced to a four week program in 2007 as a result of perceived repetitiveness within the learning modules. Ultimately, Convocation accepted the Task Force recommendation[8] that the Skills and Professional Responsibility Program be replaced with a pre-call five day pre-call professional responsibility and practice requirement integrated with articling and 24 hour of continuing professional development in the first two years after being called to the bar.

Since 2008, the five day professional responsibility and practice requirement has fallen away. Candidates are now required to pass the two licensing examinations and either to article or attend the LPP. The pre-call training in Ontario has been reduced from four and one-half months to five weeks to four weeks to five days and is now eliminated. The Barristers and the Solicitors Examinations remain.

To summarize, lawyers now called to the bar in Ontario have three years of law school, ten months of articling or the LPP and must pass the Barristers and the Solicitors Examinations.

The articling debate

There have long been debates “on the value of articling as a component of professional legal education and recommendations for change”[9]. As long ago as 1972, abolishing articling was proposed[10]. In 2008, the Licensing and Accreditation Task Force consulted the profession on this and other topics. As the Task Force reported in its Final Report:

Respondents overwhelmingly rejected the abolition of articling. They emphasized that a competent profession requires practical training before call to the bar. Articling should not be characterized as a barrier, but rather as a core component of the licensing process.

The nature of the articling debate changed by the late 2000s. Previously, the debate was mostly about the utility and variability of the articling experience. What caused the change was that the number of licensing candidates in Ontario has increased significantly over the last 15 years or so while the number of articling positions has not kept pace.

The substantial increase in the number licensing candidates

In 1972, the annual capacity of the Ontario law schools was in the range of 1,000 to 1,100 students[11]. By 2000, the number of first year law students admitted to Ontario law schools was essentially unchanged at 1,103 students[12]. For more than 25 years, the capacity of the principal gateway to the legal profession in Ontario was unchanged. That this was so is somewhat surprising given the increased population of Ontario and the resulting increase in supply and demand. Something had to give and it did. At the same time, something else happened, namely increased immigration and the acceptance that qualified immigrants had to be treated fairly in professional licensing[13].

From 2000 to 2010, the annual capacity of Ontario law schools increased by over 300 to in excess of 1,400 students. By 2015, the annual law school capacity was nearly 1,550 students[14]. After decades of essentially no change, the annual capacity of the Ontario law schools has increased by 40% over the last fifteen years.

During the same fifteen year period, a new source of licensing applicants opened up. In 2000, only approximately 100 Ontario licensing applicants came through the National Committee on Accreditation (NCA) having attended law school outside of Canada. By 2010, there were nearly 400 NCA candidates. There are now some 650 NCA candidates annually of whom approximately half are Canadians who obtained their law degrees outside of Canada.

Putting this information together, the last 15 years has seen a total increase from approximately 1,000 candidates annually to approximately 2,200 annually[15]. Approximately 45% of this increase is from increased Ontario law school capacity, approximately 25% is from foreign-trained Canadians and approximately 25% is from foreign-trained immigrants. That some 70% of this significant increase is from Canadians shows a significant demand for law school education that was not previously met. This is consistent with pent-up demand after the unchanged Ontario law school capacity over the prior 25 years.

The slower increase in the number of articling positions and the LPP response

Unfortunately, the increased numbers of candidates seeking articles in the late 2000s coincided with the 2008 economic crisis and its aftermath. During this period, larger firms cut back the number of articling positions. This didn’t help.

In any event, while the number of articling positions has substantially increased (to approximately 1,950 by 2016), there has been a gap for some time between the number of licensing candidates and the number of articling positions. It is also the case that, likely given the intense competition for articling positions, some of the increased number of articling positions are less attractive and even exploitative positions, including poorly or unpaid positions.

It was this gap between the supply of and demand for articling positions that was the impetus for the 2012 Articling Task Force which recommended the establishment of the Law Practice Program (LPP) as an alternative to articling. This recommendation was one of the three available responses. The first was to do nothing and accept that the number of articling positions practically limited the number of new lawyers each year. The second was to add a new pathway to licensing, namely the LPP. The third (which was the minority position) was to abolish articling in favour of a limited version of the LPP.

How to think about all of this

It is clear that the establishment of a second licensing pathway (the LPP) didn’t end the never-ending licensing debates. The LPP was only established as a pilot project. Perhaps inevitably when there was a prospect of ending the LPP, there was substantial opposition with a resulting Law Society decision to deliberate more generally on approaches to licensing.

While, as of the writing of this column, there are no proposals on the table, it is reasonably predictable that some or all of essentially the same alternatives will yet again be considered. One option is to continue articling and the LPP with or without reform. Another option is to eliminate the LPP in favour of articling as the only pathway. A third option is to eliminate articling in favour of the LPP in current or different form. A fourth option is to eliminate both articling and the LPP.

The point of this column is to reflect on what is, or should be, in issue in considering the various alternatives.

The competence mandate and fairness to candidates

There are, broadly speaking, two proper perspectives from which to consider these issues. The first perspective is that of the clients to be served by the lawyers that we license. This is the point of the competence mandate described at the outset. Ensuring that those licensed to practice law are competent to practice law is fundamental to professional regulation. Losing track of the competence mandate is unacceptable even if tempting.

The second perspective is that of the licensing candidates[16]. There are two aspects to this perspective. The first is that of candidates generally. For example, all candidates naturally prefer not to pay for licensing requirements especially after enduring expensive law school fees. The second is that there are differences between licensing candidates i.e. the second perspective is heterogeneous. These candidates’ perspective may be thought of as being about fairness; fairness to candidates generally, fairness as between candidates and fairness to specific candidates.

Like all hard problems, proper policy decision-making here isn’t about choosing between the two perspectives. Rather, both perspectives must be considered. However, it is important to recognize generally speaking that the point of licensing is to ensure competence and that the licensing requirement inherently places burdens on prospective licensees. How much burden is properly borne and how that burden should be shared are important questions.

The competence mandate

It seems to me that thinking clearly about the competence mandate requires reflection on the evolution of the licensing process over the last two decades. This evolution is essentially from a four and one-half month bar admission course in which substantive and procedural law and lawyering skills were taught and assessed to the current Barrister and Solicitor Examinations i.e. from teaching to just testing. While it is likely true that law schools generally place greater emphasis on experiential education than they did two decades ago, I’m not aware of good evidence that law schools are now training lawyers to practice law. Indeed, law schools disclaim this responsibility and mission.

For this reason, it seems to me that those arguing for an end to, or substantial reduction of, transitional training (whether through articling or the LPP) should face a heavy burden to demonstrate that proposed changes meet the competence mandate. Said another way, I don’t think it acceptable to have perceived fairness to candidates trump the competence mandate. Indeed, allowing incompetent candidates to enter practice is itself unfair to them.

It would be a terrible irony if the focus on the competence mandate in the 1990s was the precursor to a series of “reforms” the net result of which was to end all transitional training. First ending the bar admission program and then ending articling/the LPP is surely not consistent with the competence mandate.

As between articling and the LPP, it must be acknowledged that neither is perfect. Some articles do not provide proper training. The competence mandate requires that these bad articles not be permitted. We must accept that some articles are better than other articles with the result that the gain from articling is uneven. In contrast, the LPP provides its candidates with a generally consistent experience. The LPP provides both simulated experiences as well as work placements for real life experiences. Unfortunately, we cannot say whether the LPP is generally better at ensuring competence than most articles or whether the reverse is true.

So far as the competence mandate is concerned, there does not appear to be a cogent basis to say that either most articles or the LPP do not provide candidates with sufficient transitional training.

The fairness requirement

The fairness requirement is tricky. For example, fairness underlies the decision to adopt the LPP as a second pathway. It would be unfair to qualified candidates who cannot find articles (because the market doesn’t generate sufficient articling positions) to say that they cannot be licensed. Once licensed, finding work is a different matter. Yet adopting the LPP created a perceived unfairness by creating two classes of candidates. Of course, the alternative of abolishing articling to ensure one common pathway would impose a burden on those who would have articled by taking articling salaries from them and by increasing the total cost of the LPP which is borne by all candidates.

It seems to me that the fairness requirement must be addressed by recognizing that perfect fairness is impossible and that eliminating burdens for some will often impose burdens on others and by focusing on how to practically mitigate unfair burdens. In that spirit, some of the current advantages (the loss of which would be a burden) and the current burdens appear to me to be as follows:

  • articles
    • can provide:
      • valuable real world experience
      • increased prospects for post-call employment
      • a salary, which is particularly important given current law school tuition
    • are less accessible:
      • to students who go to law school in other countries and aren’t part of the “system” during law school
      • to new Canadians who may lack language skills and social capital
      • to racialized candidates
    • can be exploitive in terms of income, experience and sexual harassment
  • the LPP
    • can provide
      • good training, including simulated training
      • work placements which are generally, but not always, paid and which provide real world experience and increased prospects for post-call employment
      • introduction to Canadian culture and society for new Canadians who are not yet fully competitive in the legal labour market
    • does not generate revenue, unlike articles, and accordingly does not pay for itself and does not provide salaries for its candidates

The bottom line

I suspect that the great articling debate that has now spanned nearly five decades has not reached resolution because there is no good answer. Articling is imperfect. There are no clearly better alternatives. Our differing perspectives lead us to different conclusions because there aren’t clear answers.

If this is so, it follows that it would be better if we stopped trying to find big answers and instead started to work toward smaller pragmatic ways of reducing burdens and unfairness.

In doing so, I suggest that we should accept two primacies. The first is our competence mandate. Any proposed change must bear the burden of showing that the clients of newly called lawyers will be competently served. The second is that unfairness must be thoughtfully and effectively addressed. In this regard, we must distinguish between dealing with unfairness that must be addressed (such as exploitative articles and Human Rights Code violations for example) and throwing babies out with bathwater in well-motivated attempts to ensure that everyone is treated in exactly the same way.

_____________________

[1] Christopher Moore, The Law Society of Upper Canada and Ontario’s Lawyers, 1791-1997, pp. 259-260. It was the vice-dean of Osgoode Hall who proposed the establishment of the bar admission course. According to Christopher Moore, “[he] suggested that a post-LLB training program could even out the inequities that plagued the articling process”.

[2] Special Committee on Legal Education Report (aka the MacKinnon Report), 1972

[3] First Competence Task Force – Final Report, November 1997

[4] Second Competence Task Force – Final Report, April 1999

[5] Bar Admission Reform Report, June 1998

[6] Task Force on the Continuum of Legal Education Report, October 2003

[7] Licensing and Accreditation Task Force Consultation Report, January 2008

[8] Licensing and Accreditation Task Force Final Report, September 2008

[9] Articling Reform Sub-Committee Report, October 1990

[10] MacKinnon Report

[11] MacKinnon Report, p. 10

[12] Ontario Universities’ Application Centre www.ouac.on.ca/statistics/law-school-application-statistics/

[13] Fair Access to Regulated Professions Act, 2006, SO 2006, c 31. Section 6 provides that “A regulated profession has a duty to provide registration practices that are transparent, objective, impartial and fair”.

[14] To 2000, most of the increase was from the University of Ottawa (216 students) and Windsor (55 students). From 200 to 2005, most of the increase was from the new law school at Lakehead (60 students), Windsor (43 students) and Queens (25 students). Ontario Universities’ Application Centre supra.

[15] This analysis excludes licensing candidates who attended law schools in other Canadian provinces.

[16] Technically, there is a third (and problematic) perspective which is that of existing lawyers whose self-interest is in the limitation of new licensees/minimizing competition. The “issue of numbers” has always been expressly or implicitly part of the licensing debates.

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