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LSUC may cut specialists program

|Written By Helen Burnett

The Ontario Bar Association is not pleased the Law Society of Upper Canada may chop the certified specialist program because it’s underperforming.

Specialist certification is very important to sectors of the bar that deal directly with the public to provide services, says Greg Goulin. Photo: Helen Burnett

Chairs of several OBA sections held a conference call recently to discuss a report by Convocation’s professional development, competence, and admissions committee, which brought forward a motion to either terminate or amend the law society certified specialist program.

The program, in place since 1988 and reformulated in 2004, gives lawyers the chance to acquire the skills and knowledge to qualify for certification as a specialist in a given practice area, such as learning criteria and accredited programs grouped by area of specialization. The certification itself recognizes a lawyer as a leader in a particular field of law.

Greg Goulin, vice president of the OBA, told Law Times the program brings a professional and public recognition of skill and particular expertise.

He says that the majority of section chairs were most concerned that the law society was even considering discontinuing the program, although a few sections did not share this sentiment.

“There is no doubt that for some areas of the practice, certified specialist has no real relevance or meaning but those are usually highly specialized areas where referrals come from practitioners as opposed to direct referrals or retainer from the public,” he says.

However, for some areas that deal directly with the public, such as family law, criminal law, and real estate law, he says, the program carries a much higher relevance.

“Those that seem to be most anxious to retain the specialization process are those that deal with the public directly in the provision of services,” he says.

“To me it says that special certification is directly involved with public service, in other words regulation of the profession in the interests of the public. So the public knows who has qualified to earn this designation.”

Convocation was originally scheduled to vote on the motion in February, but the item was deferred to this month’s Convocation. It is likely to be postponed again, however.

The committee’s report (available on LSUC’s web site at http://www.lsuc.on.ca/media/convfeb07_pdc.pdf) notes that the program didn’t meet any of its 2006 performance goals, as only 3.6 per cent of the practising bar are certified specialists and the profit margin for running the program was less than one per cent.

In 2002, Convocation set goals for the program that included six per cent of the practising bar involved in the program by 2006 as well as a 10-per-cent profit margin. At the end of December 2006, there were 719 lawyers listed as certified specialists in 15 specialty areas. Members currently pay a one-time application fee of $424 as well as an annual fee of $318 to be a certified specialist.

While the program recorded a profit of less than $8,000 last year, the committee is anticipating losses in excess of $150,000 in 2007 unless the number of certified specialists increases, as direct expenditures are increasing because of staff being reallocated directly to the program.

As a result, the committee is proposing that Convocation adopt one of three options for the certified specialist program:

•    either the law society terminates it as of Jan. 1, 2008, and existing specialists be allowed to use the certification until the end of that year;

•    the program continues with the addition of a CS designation for certified specialists, a review in two years and continued subsidization for the program;

•    or the program continues with the addition of a CS designation for certified specialists, a review in two years, and an increase in certified specialist fees, leading to the program becoming self-sustaining.

According to the committee’s report, one factor negatively affecting the program is a continuing view among the profession that there is little benefit to the program. Also, the average age of certified specialists is 55, and the committee notes that new and younger lawyers “appear not to see this program as beneficial to their practices.”

The same appears to be true of the public at large, according to the report.

“The public does not recognize or understand the notion of a certified specialist, and the membership does not believe that the designation is any more meaningful than the original law degree.”

Goulin says that, “As a result, I think the law society should direct their efforts at promoting certified specialists not to the profession but to the public and once the public becomes more familiar with the certified specialist designation, then I think you’ll see practitioners lining up to acquire that specialization if it is of significance to them and their practice in that area.”

He adds, however, that the funding issue is concerning as well.

“One moment they’re taking the lawyers’ funds because they have some sort of excess accumulated of our fees and dues and loaning it to regulate paralegals . . . the next minute they’re saying that the specialist program, which is in the public interest, is not making them enough money. If you put the two of them together that causes some concern to me as a lawyer,” he says.

Goulin says OBA president James Morton has written a letter to LSUC Treasurer Gavin MacKenzie outlining the association’s concerns. The OBA is also encouraging individual members to write to the treasurer about the subject.

“I would respectfully suggest in this case that to a certain extent, the degree to which certain members of the profession are very upset with the law society can be directly attributed to the fact that nobody talked with them, nobody communicated with them,” he says.

Speaking on behalf of immigration lawyers who hold the certification, Toronto lawyer Sergio Karas says his concern is that the designation of certified specialist gives immigration lawyers in particular another tool to identify themselves as specialists as opposed to immigration consultants.

“I think the law society should be looking for ways to help lawyers, rather than hampering them,” he says.

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