OTTAWA — Law schools and legal licensing will look very different in a few years than they do today, says the treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada.
Speaking to students at the University of Ottawa’s law faculty on April 3, LSUC Treasurer Thomas Conway said there’s a move afoot across Canada to transform the way lawyers get their licences. New law schools are emerging and law societies are getting hundreds of applications from those who have studied overseas and want to practise in Canada.
“I think in 10 or 15 years we are going to see a licensing process nationwide that is very, very different from what we have now, very different from what we have had for 70 years,” said Conway.
“I think we’re probably going to see formal legal education in the law schools will be very different as well for a number of reasons.”
Conway said it all started with the debate over what to do about the growing shortage of articling positions for young law school graduates.
When the law society began looking at that question, about 12 per cent of students couldn’t find articling positions. That number has now risen to roughly 15 per cent of graduates.
However, the discussion quickly moved beyond the question of articling positions, he noted.
“One of the unintended consequences of the discussion, I think, was a broader discussion about legal education in Canada.”
The debate about articling, training, and what skills a lawyer needs in order to practise in 2013 is a discussion the legal profession hasn’t had for “generations,” said Conway.
The influx of internationally trained lawyers has also prompted the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to take a closer look at the criteria for a Canadian common law degree, according to Conway. The result was the federation realized that the admissions criteria, curriculum, and teaching philosophies were very different from one law school to the next.
“It is very hard to say exactly what a Canadian law degree looks like.”
The federation established a committee to look at the question and draft a list of competencies for all common law degree holders.
“There’s now criteria for how we measure that,” he said. “That’s brand new, that’s right out of the box.”
Conway said the committee assigned to evaluate common law degree programs is now starting its work.
The number of law schools across Canada is also multiplying, Conway said.
“For 40 years, we hadn’t had a new law school. In the space of a couple of years, Lakehead University was approved, Thompson Rivers in B.C. was approved, the Université de Montreal common law program was approved, Memorial University is talking about starting a law school, and, of course, we have an application pending from Trinity Western University in British Columbia, a private university.”
Conway predicted law schools would diversify even more in the coming years.
“From a regulatory point of view, we would say as long as we can be assured that your students are actually going to come out of your course with these skills and having met these standards, go ahead.”
Conway said the largest group of applicants to the law society involves students who trained outside Canada, many of them Canadians who weren’t able to score a spot in a law school here and who turned instead to institutions like Bond University in Australia or the University of Leicester in Britain.
Despite the shortage of jobs in some areas, Conway said there’s still a huge demand for legal education.
“Until that demand is satiated, I think you are going to see pressure on law schools to change, to innovate because there is going to be new players coming into the market.”
Lakehead University, for example, is focusing on aboriginal law and training lawyers for Northern Canada.
“They are really going to be introducing a program that is going to look very different, I think, than most of the common law programs in the country.”
While there’s no shortage of lawyers to do mergers and acquisitions on Bay Street, there’s an underrepresentation when it comes to some areas of practice such as family, criminal, and immigration law, he said.
In addition, many Ontarians currently go without a lawyer.
Nevertheless, Conway faced tough questions from students, particularly over whether the planned system to resolve the articling problem would create two tiers of graduates, one of which which gets paid to article and the other of which has to pay to take a law practice program.
“We have a two-tiered system now,” Conway responded. “This alternative pathway provides an opportunity for students who will not be able to be licensed to become licensed.”
Under the current system, even those who get an articling position have no guarantee they’ll receive education while they work for a law firm, he said. With the new system, those who article and those who take the law practice program will both have to go through an additional assessment.
Having the legal profession pay for all of the students in the licensing process is “a non-starter,” he added.
Conway said the request for proposals to teach the law practice program has gone out to a number of institutions and noted the law society is in the process of choosing a provider.
“It’s far from perfect but at least it gives students the option of becoming licensed and getting out and practising and proving that they are good lawyers.”
For more, see "Law practice pilot shortened."