Ontario bar admission overhaul, part 1

Yesterday, I posted a brief note about the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Licensing and Accreditation Task Force Interim Report To Convocation. Today, as promised, is the start of a two-part running commentary on what struck me as the most relevant or noteworthy aspects of the report. The first half, which I’ll address below, deals with the report’s preamble and its thoughts regarding the Skills and Professional Responsibility Program. Tomorrow, in an article that will first appear at SLAW, I’ll look at the task force’s recommendations concerning the articling system.

Herewith, an annotated stroll through a very important report.

15. A national standard for the approval of common law degrees for the purpose of entrance into law society bar admission or licensing processes has never been articulated in Canada. The only articulated standard for 50 years is a Law Society of Upper Canada document, set out at Appendix 1, that was prepared in 1957 and amended in 1969 (“the amended 1957 requirements”) and which other law societies appear to have tacitly accepted.

I think this nicely sums up the imminent train wreck of a lawyer licensing system that our profession lives with today. The standard was written in 1957, amended in 1969, and tinkered with at regular intervals over the next four decades while Canadian society, the legal services marketplace, and eventually, even the profession itself, evolved into enormously different beasts. In 1957, Louis St. Laurent, Maurice Duplessis, Tommy Douglas and Joey Smallwood all held elected office. Try picturing the legal profession as it existed in that era — that’s the profession that drew up today’s bar admission rules. Continue Reading

Articling abolition? A groundbreaking LSUC report

It arrived quietly and without fanfare. I’ve seen no reports of it in the mainstream media or the legal press. In fact, the young-lawyer-focused law blogs Precedent and Law Is Cool are the only places I’ve seen talk about it so far. But the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Licensing and Accreditation Task Force Interim Report To Convocation, delivered last week in Toronto, is set to completely overhaul the process of admission to the practice of law in Ontario and, eventually, the rest of Canada. If you’re a law student, a lawyer who intends to hire new lawyers someday, or interested at all in the present and future direction of lawyer training in Canada, this report is an absolute must-read.

The main interim report is 44 pages long, followed by an additional 152 pages spread out over 10 appendices. I doubt there’s ever been a more comprehensive report on the bar admission process (nor will any other province likely try to duplicate the task force’s efforts or findings), and I can only imagine what the final report will look like. For what it’s worth, I think the report’s findings are accurate, timely and sorely needed.

I don’t have time here to break down the report in detail — I’ll be writing a more comprehensive commentary that will appear at SLAW in a few days’ time and will be cross-posted here. But this is what you need to know:

1. The Task Force recommends the abolition of the current Skills and Professional Responsibility Program from the bar admission process in Ontario. Of all the reasons the task force gave for this recommendation, perhaps none is more suprising than its assertion that right now, law schools are doing a better job of teaching students skills and professional responsibility than the law society is.

2. The Task Force offers three alternatives to the current articling process by which lawyers ostensibly receive sufficient practical training to enter the practice of law. These are:

(a) make it extremely clear to all current and prospective law students that the law society does not guarantee articling placements, and accordingly cannot guarantee that a law graduate can become a practising lawyer (laissez-faire).

(b) set up or certify a parallel Practical Legal Training Course that provides law graduates who could not obtain articles the chance to earn an equivalent certification in practical legal skills training (Australian model).

(c) Abolish articling outright (the U.S. model).

The Task Force makes no recommendation concerning these three options — it offers pros and cons of each — but it makes quite clear that the status quo is not sustainable, not least because the Ontario bar admission process is facing a tsunami of rising applications over the next few years, culminating in an expected 2009 application class no less than 38.7% larger than in 2001.

The report is groundbreaking, if for no other reason than that it squarely lays out the numerous shortcomings of Ontario’s present bar admission process and demands that the profession act, now, to change. Go read it.

Out of law school, into a recession

Everyone’s talking about it, so we might as well tackle it, too. It seems immaterial at this point whether the US economy is approaching, entering or currently experiencing a recession — it’s clear that the economy is slowing down and, more importantly, that people are getting worried and even scared about it. Some of this can be attributed to the mainstream media doing its usual frenzy-whipping, but there is genuine cause for concern out there. This is the first time the US economy has tanked in the globalization era, and that’s going to have some nasty results (such as, US consumer spending power will drop but oil prices won’t, because for the first time, it’s Chinese, not American, consumption that’s pushing oil demand).

Things ought not to be as bad in Canada, but it’s still no fun graduating from law school, carrying a huge debt load, to find a mediocre or poor job market waiting for you. If you entered law school within the past five years, you paid boom prices for a law degree and you might end up in a bust marketplace. It’s not fair — but it happens. You won’t be the first new lawyer to experience it, but if you’re a Millennial, you’ve also never seen one of these things before, and they can be more than a little disconcerting.

There are lessons to be drawn, however, from those of us who landed in similarly soft job markets in previous downturns. Here are a few thoughts on what to do if you’re taking a new LL.B. or J.D. into a recession. Continue Reading

Beyond work/life balance

Seth Godin, whom you’ll see linked fairly often in this space, writes about the new workaholic, the person who’s motivated not by fear but by passion: “The passionate worker doesn’t show up because she’s afraid of getting in trouble, she shows up because it’s a hobby that pays. …[T]he new face of work, at least for some people, opens up the possibility that work is the thing (much of the time) that you’d most like to do.”

I read that and thought of the survey of law firm associates that Hildebrandt issued a little while ago. Its findings caused something of a stir by flouting the conventional wisdom that associates, especially in large firms, were overworked, stressed and deeply unhappy. I won’t go into the nuts and bolts here, but among the findings was that satisfaction was much higher than expected and that there was no correlation between long hours and unhappiness — rather the opposite, in fact. I think these two items say something about today’s new lawyers that law firms need to understand.

I continue to be amazed by senior lawyers who complain long and loud about the current generation entering their firms: “no commitment,” “not willing to pay their dues,” “a sense of entitlement,” and occasionally, even “lazy” are among the apparent sins of the young. The people saying these things are very smart, very capable, often leaders of their firms, but I don’t think they’re grasping a critical point: by and large, today’s new lawyers have no qualms whatsoever about working long and hard. What they have serious qualms about is working long and hard on rote tasks, unfulfilling assignments, due diligence and similar kinds of docket-filler, with few opportunities for serious client contact, independent undertakings, or crunch-time appearances in dealrooms and courtrooms. Continue Reading

Eyes wide open

Over at the Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog, they’ve published a Q-and-A with a young New York law grad named Kirsten Wolf. She graduated from Boston University Law School in 2002 right into the dot-com collapse and couldn’t find work, even though she was a B+ student. She has the courage and grace to admit that she went into law school not really knowing what else to do, and that when it became clear halfway through her degree that there wouldn’t be a job for her, she found she didn’t really have a passion for the law after all. Today, she works at a job she loves for a New York publishing company, but she has $87,000 in debt, which will take her about 30 years to repay.

This is what Ms. Wolf is currently up to:

I’m on a one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.

I think she’s exactly right. Continue Reading

The good times rolled

A noteworthy item in the National Law Journal today, interesting for a bunch of reasons. The thrust of the article is that with a recession likely to arrive in 2008, associates at many top US firms are likely to see an end to the salary and bonus frenzy that has obsessed the legal press for the last year or so. (Starting first-year salaries of $180,000 and year-end bonuses approaching $55,000, in case you’re wondering.)

First of all, I had to smile at this explanatory sentence in the article: “Top firms, for the purposes of this article, compose a group of large New York-based law firms that, generally, copy one another in bonus structures.” That’s odd, because I thought top firms were the ones with lawyers who were, you know, extremely good at what they do and had the respect and loyalty of their clients. But apparently, top firms are the ones that are very big and do whatever the other very big firms do. This is the kind of muddled thinking that permeates too much legal journalism in the US and Canada both: mistaking the small fraction of huge firms retained by wealthy multinationals for the profession at large. The last time I checked the CBA database, lawyers in firms of 100 or more represented about a tenth of the legal population.

Secondly, the article talks up the coming recession, as has become widely fashionable lately and will, no doubt, soon become a refrain in presidential campaigns in the US and possible election calls in Canada. I don’t follow this topic especially closely, but it has seemed to me for a while that the booming economy we hear so much about has boomed for only a small percentage of the population, while real wages for a lot of working North Americans (including lawyers) have been stagnant or worse for awhile now. Banks may be hemorrhaging money in the wake of the subprime mortgage fiasco (and the imminent subprime credit card fiasco), but you could argue what we’re seeing is the financial sector coming down to earth and joining the rest of us. Of course, it’s the white-hot financial sector that has been driving “top firm” profits recently, so you can see how some white collars in those firms are now getting a little tight. (Gerry Riskin was on top of this months ago, at any rate.) Continue Reading

Large firms and law schools

Law students seem to believe in a hierarchy of legal job options: large law firms #1, small law firms #1A, everything else #2 and lower. One of the main reasons for this is that the legal profession believes in it, too.

You don’t have to buy your average private-firm lawyer too many drinks before they’ll tell you that in-house lawyers “couldn’t cut it” in the trenches, that law professors are afraid of “the real world,” and that public-sector lawyers are basically civil servants with a law degree. It’s an asinine chauvinism, but one that’s still quietly held by too many private-practice lawyers (and that still resonates too much with some in-house/government/academia/NGO lawyers). That’s changing, but it’ll still be a while before our profession’s system is flushed of it completely.

Considering the broad range of legal careers out there, private firms (especially the large national and most prominent local firms) do have a disproportionately large footprint at law schools. These firms throw a lot of money, time and effort into branding themselves at the schools, resources that smaller firms and non-firm employers simply don’t have. You won’t see the Sierra Legal Defence Fund at too many OCIs. Little wonder that students assume law firms represent the be-all and end-all of legal careers, and focus their efforts accordingly.

But it’s also a fact that large firms are disproportionately represented in the pool of “employers willing to hire new lawyers.” Many large firms will hire two dozen or more articling students a year in one office alone — there are smaller and even midsize firms out there that won’t take on that many articling students in their lifetime. The associate pool at many large firms is larger than the full lawyer complement at most Canadian law firms.

Law firms are, effectively, the engine of post-call new lawyer training in Canada. A lawyer at one large firm in Alberta related that right before the firm announces which articling students will be hired back, she gets calls from other firms and legal employers inquiring about the ones who won’t make the cut. She’ll soon see those lawyers, whom her firm has spent a lot of money feeding, clothing and training, opposing them in court. That happens across the country.

How long firms are willing to subsidize post-call legal training in Canada is an open question – I keep thinking they’ll eventually run the cost/benefit analysis and rethink their policy. But for the time being, the legal profession requires these firms’ annual willingness to hire a lot of graduates who will eventually turn into few senior associates and even fewer partners. And all the students graduating with $50,000 in debt — which they won’t pay off with a job at the Ministry of the Environment — require it too.

All that said, I’m sympathetic to the plight of the excellent legal employers outside the law firm community who have little or no profile among law schools. But their day will come. When third-year students and young associates talk longingly about “alternative careers,” they’re belatedly turning their attention to the other 90% of the legal profession outside of large law firms. I’m a ‘95 call, and I and many of my friends articled and “associated” (is that a verb?) with law firms. Today, the great majority of us work for government, corporate law departments, or NGOs.

Law schools ought to do a better job informing students of the wide world of legal careers. But that’s encompassed by the much larger and more significant question of the relationship between law schools and law firms – a relationship in need of some serious work.

This post originally appeared at Slaw on November 13, 2007.

Offshore reflections

It’s a few weeks late, but this article about offshore legal services published early last month in The Hindu is worth a read, although it’s not offered on the basis that all its contents should necessarily be taken at face value. It comes across rather as a corporate Q-and-A for SDD Global Solutions, an Indian legal services PKO, and some might differ with company president Russell Smith’s uncompromising opinions on the state of Western law practice. In fairness, not every shot he fires is accurate — but a lot of them sure are.

What’s particularly interesting about this article, however, is the unattractive picture of the Western legal profession that comes through — this is the image the profession has managed to develop for itself throughout the rest of the world. If your North American or European firm wants to be a global player in the law, you should be aware that your reputation is now preceding you.

Some highlights: Continue Reading

Millennial fever

This post first appeared as an article at Slaw on October 1, 2007.

During the past 50-odd years, the North American legal profession has been notable for a ready supply of labour. The post-war population boom and increased access to post-secondary education, combined with the enduring lure of a legal career, ensured that there would always be a deep pool of lawyers into which firms could dip for talent.

When a buyer’s market lasts that long, the buyers’ advantages become locked into the prevailing culture of the marketplace. Much of what we take for granted in modern law firms — hourly billable targets, ever-increasing workloads, lengthening partnership tracks, client hoarding by partners, and more — can be traced at least in part to firms’ established ability to dictate the terms of employment to a fairly low-cost and easily leveraged labour pool. Law firm employers have held the whip hand for so long that we’ve come to think it’s just the natural order of things.

That’s about to change. Talent — in nicer terms, the actual human beings who provide legal services — is becoming scarce. This is new, and for a lot of law firms, it’s not going to be fun. Continue Reading

Mom and Dad, Esq.

Somebody asked me, after I returned to the office following three months’ parental leave, “Did you enjoy your time off?”

“I enjoyed the last three months immensely,” I said. “But trust me, ‘time off’ does not in any way describe it.”

If you’ve spent more than a few weeks raising a child hands-on, you’ll probably get that. If you haven’t, you might have a hard time understanding how parenting can be more work than the toughest law job — and can be more rewarding than the greatest law job, too. Similarly, I think most legal employers these days are either clued in to helping their lawyers be parents, or they’re not.

It’s been heartening to hear and read the stories of law firms that do get it: they accommodate within their work structures lawyers’ decisions to have kids. They understand not only the business advantages to that approach — retention, recruitment, and more (set out below) — but also that a law firm community that respects its employees’ personal lives is a triumph of professionalism.

And some firms don’t get it. Their business models can’t maximize production from young parents, and so they accept high turnover rates and the exodus of women lawyers as a tolerable cost of success. What strikes me, even more so than before I spent three months as a full-time dad, is how it’s the firms who are missing out here, not the lawyers. What sensible law firm wouldn’t want to employ a parent?

Parents are the ultimate multi-taskers, simultaneously juggling numerous duties — all urgent priorities and all mandatory — through hard work, organization and efficiency. That’s not valuable to firms trying to leverage the most work out of the fewest professionals?

Parents are tremendous dispute resolvers, balancing both the short-term demands and long-term interests of parties with deeply self-interested viewpoints, usually in high-stress situations. That’s not useful for clients who need conflicts settled quickly and calmly?

Parents are great listeners, reading between the lines of what they’re told and figuring out what someone really needs, earning their trust in the process. That’s not the very heart of effective client relations and marketing?

Parents function on much less sleep than they need. That’s not a survival skill in the modern law firm?

The business case for law firms to recruit and retain lawyers who are parents is clear. The business case for the billable-hour regime and the work-‘em-till-they-drop culture of many firms, which drive away these valuable professionals, remains a mystery to me.

This post first appeared as the editorial in the July/August 2007 issue of National magazine.