The Law Society of Upper Canada has established a working group to look into concerns about its continuing professional development requirement after some lawyers complained that aspects of the fledgling policy were “repetitive” and “limiting.”
Convocation approved the working group on Jan. 26. The group will focus on addressing concerns about the policy’s requirement for interactivity; complaints about the obligations of new lawyers; and the amount of hours required of lawyers and paralegals.
Continued professional development became mandatory for lawyers and paralegals last year after the professional development and competence committee and the paralegal standing committee approved the policy in February 2010.
Under the policy, lawyers and paralegals who have been in practice for more than two years must complete 12 hours of continued professional development with at least three of those hours being on topics related to professional responsibility, ethics, and practice management.
For lawyers and paralegals who have been practising for less than two years, all of the required hours must incorporate these three topic areas.
But according to a report from the law society’s professional development and competence committee, the policy has proved a challenge for many of those it affects.
“The current policy requires members to view archived webcasts with a colleague in order to fulfil the interactivity requirement,” the report noted.
“Concerns have been expressed by sole and small firm practitioners around the difficulties of finding and scheduling viewing times with colleagues, among other concerns.”
Toronto paralegal Marshall Yarmus says he has experienced that difficulty first-hand. He notes webcasts often aren’t accessible and can be time-consuming as well.
“There have been times where I’ve wanted to use a webcast but it has not been available online or isn’t archived,” says Yarmus. “It’s particularly difficult to meet the professional development requirements when I have to attend court and deal with these problems.
I don’t have a lot of spare time to devote to this, so it is a bit of a concern.”
Allan Griesdorf, a semi-retired lawyer in Toronto, agrees, adding the requirement for interactivity seems “silly.”
“It seems silly that I would have to try to convince someone to sit with me and watch a webcast and I can’t imagine that anyone actually would,” says Griesdorf.
“They should really make the webcast archives much more convenient and accessible, particularly for people my age who need all the hours we can get in a day to attend to our practices. There really isn’t time to devote to webcasts that stretch for several hours, especially if they’re only available during business hours.”
But Aaron Grinhaus, a lawyer at Himelfarb Proszanski LLP, doesn’t feel the interactivity requirement is cumbersome. “The interactivity requirement is designed to provide some evidence that you actually did the course rather than just leave your computer on and walk away,” says Grinhaus.
“Although I still think it’s far more valuable to attend in person, I know some people have said that is difficult if they don’t live in the GTA. But local bar associations often host the courses and practically every town with lawyers and paralegals in them has a local bar association.”
Apart from interactivity requirements, the law society’s report also notes concerns about other aspects of the policy.
The report found the policy’s obligations on new members, for example, was a concern as several people said they felt they were being “held back” in the types of learning opportunities available in their area of practice.
“New members have commented on the restriction on their choices of content,” the report noted. “They feel they are being held back from experiencing the broader range of substitutive learning options that are available to develop their knowledge and skills in their chosen area of practice.”
The report found similar concerns among more experienced lawyers and paralegals who said the number of claimable hours for activities like teaching and mentoring were insufficient. People also felt they were being “forced” into programs that weren’t valuable to their practice and were often repetitive.
Yarmus agrees with the comments, noting he has often felt restricted by the requirements when it comes to expanding his paralegal practice.
“Paralegals are only allowed to take professional development courses in a certain set of practice areas and any outside those don’t count toward your CPD requirement,” he says.
“It seems to me that the law society is trying to control the education of paralegals by limiting what they have access to, to prevent them from expanding into other areas like family law.”
Griesdorf, meanwhile, says the course content has become increasingly expensive while leaving lawyers with little applicable knowledge to show for it.
“Often, you end up getting credit for something far beyond anything that relates to your practice,” says Griesdorf.
“That can get pretty expensive when you’re paying $200 or $300 per program, especially when it doesn’t leave you with much to show for it. I’ve been a lawyer for 51 years and I’ve just seen it become more onerous.”
But Grinhaus says that might be the wrong view for lawyers and paralegals to take. “I think they might be looking at this in the wrong way,” he says.
“It shouldn’t be looked at as a burden. It should be looked at in the same way pro bono is looked at, as giving back to society by increasing their education to better serve the public. The law society making professional development an official obligation just formalizes something that should already be done.”
Adam Dodek, an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa, expresses similar views, noting the new requirements are an important factor in protecting lawyers and paralegals against ethical issues in the future.
“Lawyers encounter legal and ethical issues every day of their career, and this has a preventative effect in helping lawyers stay out of trouble by educating them about what to look out for,” says Dodek.
“It helps provide direction, discussion, and debate and puts those issues of the profession front and centre every year. I think it’s been a great success so far.”
For now, at least 1,831 law society members have yet to complete the professional development requirements, according to the report. The law society expects to have a full evaluation of the program later in the year with recommendations on changes to the policy to go before Convocation.
“Like the introduction of any new program, there will be warts that come along with it, and I think these will all be things that will be revisited in the next five years or so,” says Dodek.
“What’s important in the meantime is that it has everyone really thinking about professional regulation seriously for the first time in a long time.”