Pained memories of the Bar Admission Course are something of a bond for many lawyers in Ontario. After three monk-like years at law school (not to mention the undergraduate and graduate degrees that many individuals had already completed), and the indignities of articling, the bar ad's tortuous mix of classes, seminars, and exams seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.
That era is about to end, as the Law Society of Upper Canada closes the book on the traditional BAC program in all its many permutations over the last 30 years. It's being replaced with a five-week program that will combine skills practice (legal writing and research), independent study and two, seven-hour, multiple-choice exams.
When I went through, in the early 1980s, 13 exams were crammed into six months — it felt more like boot camp than an education. But the experience did give me something valuable: a hands-on, practical knowledge of the law and its application, which, up to that point, had been lacking. Law school provided the theory, and the law firm a taste of the culture and insanely hard work that being a lawyer often entails. But it wasn't really until I got to the bar ads that I developed a secure sense of how it all fit together.
And that, according to some of the long-time BAC lecturers (whose services will no longer be required when the course switches to its new format next May), has been a common experience for many bar ad students. Especially since the advent of online education and research, many candidates have become even more distanced from the experience of learning the most practical aspects of law from lawyers who are primarily practitioners, not teachers.
"All these kids now are in silos and [the new system] is going to perpetuate that silo mentality," said Harry Herskowitz, a commercial real estate practitioner and partner with DelZotto Zorzi in Toronto, who has taught the BAC for more than 20 years.
Some may think he is merely bemoaning loss of the work, but Herskowitz says that is far from his point.
"When I look back at the first couple of years of my practice, I think, thank God I went to bar ad: it brought it all together. That was really it for me. You don't expect the people who go through it to want to go through it. I don't like going to the doctor for a vaccine but when you're out and everybody else who didn't get the shot got sick and you're not, you thank God that you went. And that's what the bar ad is, really."
Cutting out the classes and seminars, Herskowitz said, may well be a "real detriment to new lawyers." The materials alone are not enough to explain how many transactions and practices work in a real, live situation, he said.
"Going through practical examples of how legal theory applies in practice is of the utmost benefit to a young lawyer, and they won't get that."
The BAC was particularly crucial for students who did not have the benefit of good articles and helpful mentors, Herskowitz said. It helped fill that gap because it was taught by practitioners who could speak from their own experience.
"A lot of the law you get in law school is very theoretical. You may argue points back and forth in a case, but how do you go from A to Z on a file, how do you close a deal — you don't get that in law school. They don't teach you the nuts and bolts of law."
The BAC was crucial, he said, for melding the theory of law as taught in law school with the hands-on experience of being in a law firm and the practical aspects of being a lawyer. And future students may not even be aware of what they are missing by not having direct contact with a range of practising lawyers since the exams will merely reflect the written material.
Earl Fruchtman, who works as a senior counsel in the Crown law office, criminal, in Toronto and who taught BAC lectures for many years, said that while he is a big supporter of education, he can understand why many candidates for the bar will have no regrets about seeing the program end. In an age of specialization, family law may seem unnecessary for someone who plans to do intellectual property at a big firm.
But Fruchtman also believes something important will be lost.
"The idea of ensuring that every person who is a member of the profession has at least gone through this and has at least satisfied some kind of minimal standard in all of the areas that they tested you in was probably a good thing."
He said that while it may not be obvious at the beginning of a legal career, familiarity with a wide variety of areas can be surprisingly useful: "It's not harmful, that's for sure." He pointed out that students can easily miss key areas in law school because of course-selection options.
In his view, simple breadth of learning is something that is fundamentally important. And while many newly qualified lawyers specialize, the age of the general practitioner is not over. What if, for instance, someone walks in with a problem that the solo lawyer knows nothing about? "I tell you, I'd be scared," he said with a certain amount of black humour.
The law society made dramatic changes to the qualifying process after lengthy study and deliberation: key factors driving the changes, it has said, are costs to students, both in terms of tuition and the indirect cost of postponing paid work for several months. George D. Hunter, who was the head of the committee that spearheaded the changes, and is now the LSUC treasurer, has said that the society did not want to make things economically harder for candidates; their average age at call is 31 and the average debt load as a result of schooling is $60,000.
Still, many believe that something integral to the traditions of legal training will be lost. Enzo Rondinelli, who practises criminal law, taught legal research and writing at the BAC for about five years. (He also teaches at Osgoode Hall Law School in the intensive criminal program.) He agreed the BAC tended to suck a lot of money and energy from students, including the cost of not working while taking the course. But he said, "I am going to miss teaching it," a view that he said appeared to be shared among the group in his recent, final marking session (in which a group of teachers collaborate on assessing papers from all over the province).
In the end, even the unique venue of the course seemed to leave its roots behind. Long housed in the stately and historic Osgoode Hall, where students were regularly exposed to the sight of gowned lawyers and their clients coming and going to the Court of Appeal, and where the benchers and other practitioners still gather for lunch in the gracious 19th-century dining room, the course last year was moved to Ryerson University.
The accommodations there had a temporary feel and "at times, it felt like being back in high school," Rondinelli said.
He recalled that just being at Osgoode added something to the whole experience of becoming a lawyer, which is not easy to replace.
"When I went through, once in awhile, when I had a break, I would go to the courts and see something legal happening, and then run back to class," he recalled.
Rondinelli also believes that the proximity to other students going through the same trying, but necessary, experience helped build special bonds; the course was something of a badge of honour to complete, a final "rite of passage" at the end of a long and arduous process.
Now that it's gone, lawyers of a certain age will have another set of memories, like long hours at law libraries or mingling with officials at the registry office, that are missing from those of their younger, perhaps in some ways poorer, colleagues.