The program can be offered entirely online or with an in-person session
With some provinces, including Ontario, moving the bar exam online, changing licencing requirements have come to the fore amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four Canadian other provinces are moving ahead this June with a new alternative to the bar exam, called PREP. The nine-month PREP program has been in the works from the Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education since 2018, and will open to 800 licencing candidates in Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan on June 1.
While the program was being piloted with an in-person session before lockdown, CPLED says it is prepared: A second pilot program will have already included a “facilitator-driven week, all online,” says Calgary-based CEO Kara Mitchelmore.
“We were the only program across the country that was remotely ready to go all virtual as needed,” she says of the COVID-19 lockdown.
The program, which is often done in concert with a candidate’s articling placement, helps “develop the competencies required to be admitted to the bar as an entry-level lawyer.” With the job market struggling, the program also asks what a young lawyer will need to open a practice of their own, she says.
“Why do we need to retest them on stuff they've already been tested on in law school? From our perspective, we were more concerned about, ‘What are the things they don't learn in law school that could get them in trouble?’” she says. “We report to the regulator; they are our clients. . . . Their number one priority is to protect the public trust.”
Mitchelmore says the program is based on the fact that in the applicable provinces, most of the complaints faced by early-career lawyers were based on practice management (not substantive legal issues.) The program teaches candidates how to interview clients, manage files, use practice management software and handle trust accounts, among other skills. Each lawyer is assessed individually using self-study and a “virtual law firm” environment, among other exercises.
“They get to practice interviewing, negotiation, advocacy, their written skills. They get feedback from their peers, they get to assess others performance, they get to reflect on their own performance,” she says.
As the $3-million project comes to fruition, Mitchelmore says it reflects the changing role of law schools. Now that law schools have their curriculums approved by regulators, it has standardized the substantive legal knowledge offered to graduates, she says. The PREP program brings law in line with professions such as accountants, she says. She also compared it to the Medical Council of Canada’s objective structured clinical examination, used to “represent real-life clinical situations.”
“We've worked quite closely with a psychometrician to make sure that our program is psychometrically defensible. Which just means that it's reliable. Across any group of students, you can expect a certain level of performance and that it's meeting the competencies that it's addressed to meet,” she says.