Law Society of Ontario approves new competency framework and dissolves certified specialist program

Lawyer Roy Bernhard started an online petition to reinstate the certified specialist designation

Law Society of Ontario approves new competency framework and dissolves certified specialist program

In the wake of profession-wide consultation and review on competence programs from the Law Society of Ontario’s Competence Task Force study, LSO benchers voted at last Thursday’s Convocation to discontinue the certified specialist designation effective Jan. 1, 2023. However, the program will continue for Indigenous legal issues to recognize the designation’s critical role in the LSO’s Indigenous framework and commitments to reconciliation.

The LSO approved its new competency framework, which includes creating a practice essentials course for sole practitioners, emphasizing technological competence, the wind-down of the certified specialist program, and eliminating the six-hour limit on archived or recorded continuing professional development programs that are eligible for CPD credit.

Chair of the competency task force Sidney Troister said the task force did not think the certified specialist program met the principles of an effective, ongoing competence regime because once designated, there is no continuing obligation to maintain the skills required to remain a certified specialist and no constant supervision or review of qualifications. Troister noted that the program also has a minimal intake, with only two percent of lawyers taking part.

“At the same time,” he said, “it was recognized that the Indigenous legal issues specialization is unique among the specialty areas in that it certifies both substantive legal specialization and, equally important and not a component of other areas of specialization, it requires intercultural understanding.”

The task force concluded that the equity and Indigenous affairs committee better makes any recommendation regarding this area of specialization.

Troister said the task force was not unanimous on whether there should be a short run-off period or the right to keep the designation if the lawyer remained in practice. “The report recommendation reflects the majority view of lifetime specialized designation. It was, however by no means unanimous.”

Bencher Jonathan Rosenthal brought a motion to amend the certified specialist recommendation to read, “current certified specialists will continue to be able to use the C.S. designation until Dec. 31, 2022” and opposed a “lifetime grandparenting of the designation.”

Rosenthal said he does not think the LSO can “grandparent” the program beyond a short period because the LSO would be increasing the value of the same title the task force is recommending should be discontinued. He said that the remaining few would have a greater value by limiting the designation.

Rosenthal noted that many lawyers use the designation to differentiate themselves from other lawyers and that “grandparenting” it prevents younger lawyers from ever getting the designation and that it is not in the public interest to continue it.

“The public will continue to be misled that those that have the designation are really something special or different than from the rest of lawyers….as more lawyers retire, there’s going to be fewer and fewer [designations]. This will interfere with the public protection because if a member of the public has been told that someone has something special, in fact something so special that you can no longer get it…. they may hire a lawyer who has gotten a special designation. What they don’t know is that lawyer got that designation 20 years ago.”

Bencher Clare Sellers seconded the motion, saying that to allow the continuation of the use of the designation creates a very unlevel playing field.

Rosenthal’s motion to amend the deadline to eliminate the certified specialist designation to Dec. 31 carried 34 – 10 with five abstentions. However, the chief executive officer at Hummingbird Lawyers LLP, Roy Bernhard, started an online petition to reinstate the designation.

The petition states that while it is understandable that programs and designations must evolve, it is an insult to strip existing members who have proudly earned and exemplified the designation and the bar members who have acknowledged and appointed specialists. “If the designation is to be sunset, at least allow the honourable members to retain what they have earned.”

The LSO said that it recognizes that the decision will impact certified specialists and will provide further details regarding the wind-up shortly.

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