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Students want seat at the table at Convocation

|Written By Alex Robinson
Students want seat at the table at Convocation
Angela Chaisson says there is a lack of younger voices at Convocation.

The Law Students’ Society of Ontario is calling for governance reforms at the provincial legal regulator to give students more of a say.

The group recently sent a letter to the Law Society of Ontario, asking for the creation of bencher positions specifically for new lawyers and law students on the legal regulator’s governing board. The letter comes at a time when the law society is expected to consider possible reforms to both its governance and the licensing process.

“Licensing candidates must be represented at Convocation. Decisions are constantly being made that will have long-term consequences on us more than on anyone else,” said the LSSO letter.

“We deserve a seat at the table and we have paid for it with our time, our efforts and our money. We are not temporary members, we are the future of the profession.”

The law society’s board is currently made up of 40 elected lawyers, five elected paralegals, eight appointed lay benchers and a number of ex-officio benchers who have varying speaking and voting rights.

The law society’s governance task force is exploring how to modernize its governance structures, which includes the makeup and size of Convocation.

The LSSO’s letter suggested that licensing candidates should be allowed to vote in bencher elections. It also proposed the creation of a bencher position for a new lawyer who has less than 10 years experience and a student bencher who would be elected by licensing candidates.

Toronto lawyer Angela Chaisson, who was called to the bar in 2012, says running for bencher can be very expensive and essentially prohibitive for young lawyers who are just starting out in their careers. This leads to a lack of younger voices at Convocation, she says.

Chaisson, who lectures at the University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall Law School, says she has heard a sense of frustration from students about the issues that affect them.

“I would say the most important issue facing Convocation and the law society are issues directly impacting law students — the articling crisis, the LPP program and skyrocketing tuition,” she says.    “These are issues that are going to affect them in years to come. I think it’s only right they have a voice and have a say.”

LSO Treasurer Paul Schabas says he forwarded the association’s letter to the law society’s governance task force, which is expected to release a report to Convocation this month.

Schabas says the letter raises important issues and cites ideas the task force is looking at in terms of what the representation at Convocation should be from various parts of the profession.

He says creating bencher positions for students and new lawyers will depend on what kind of governance structure the task force comes up with. Schabas has voiced support for a smaller board and acknowledges that there will likely be a tension between making sure all voices are heard at Convocation and the view that there are too many benchers as it is.

“There are a lot of competing issues around having a governance structure that’s efficient and effective and yet still having the diversity of voices that we need,” he says.

The LSSO’s letter said that students’ views have largely been ignored even after having been engaged in consultations with the law society on a number of issues.

Schabas, however, says the law society does constant outreach with law schools, students and their deans. He says he has been going out to law schools over the last few months to talk about licensing issues and conveyed what he heard to the committee that is reviewing the issue.

The law society recently released a survey that was part of its wider review of licensing that found 21 per cent of recent or current articling students had experienced some kind of unwelcome comment or conduct based on a personal characteristic, such as gender, race or sexual orientation.

Supporters of creating student benchers say it would be especially important for the law society to adopt such a position now, as the regulator is set to consider changes to the licensing process.

The LSSO’s president, Deepak Iyer, says there is a whole slew of issues the group wants to have more of a say in that concern students, including the future of articling and the cost of licensing fees and bar examinations.

“If you’re not able to listen to us as students, give us a voting opinion so that we have more representation and a stronger representation that’s more authenticated,” he says.

The law society’s professional development and competence committee is also expected to release a report this month that will suggest possible reforms to the licensing process. Since the committee shelved a plan to end the controversial Law Practice Program in 2016, it has engaged in consultations about what the future of articling and the broader licensing process should be.

It is not clear yet what the committee will come up with, but some options that have been discussed include making the Law Practice Program the only pathway to licensing, ending transitional training as a limited requirement and even a United States-style bar examination.

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