I’m very pleased to let you know about Lawyer Licensing and Competence in Alberta: Analysis and Recommendations, a report written by me for the Law Society of Alberta. The law society’s Benchers (the elected lawyer directors of the province’s legal services regulator) accepted the report and all of its recommendations earlier this month. Preparations are now underway to implement the recommendations over the coming months and years.
For the inside story of how I came to write this report, and why it signals a new direction for my own writing and consulting career, please see this companion post. Here, however, I’d like to explain how the report itself came about, what its primary recommendations are, and why I believe it signals an opportunity for other jurisdictions to re-examine their own licensing and competence systems and bring them into the 21st century.
First, some background. Here are the essentials of how you become and remain a lawyer in Alberta:
- Earn a degree from a Canadian law school or a certification from the National Accreditation Committee of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada.
- Complete the bar admission program administered by the Canadian Center for Professional Legal Education (CPLED).
- Complete a term of articling (one year of supervised practice apprenticeship with an Alberta lawyer in good standing).
- Once called to the bar, annually assess your learning needs, choose a series of learning activities that will advance your proficiency in these areas, and report those activities to the law society.
This combination is unique in Canada: although three other provinces (Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan) also engage CPLED to conduct their bar admission program, only Alberta does not use a “minimum number of CLE hours” system to ensure ongoing competence. (Indeed, Alberta stands alone in Canada and the US on that score.)
But back in February (which seems like a very long time ago), the law society decided to suspend lawyers’ CPD filing requirement while the system itself was reviewed and overhauled. That decision was triggered by uncertainty about whether the “self-assessment and learning activities” system was generating actual learning activity and whether the system had sufficient accountability to achieve that result.
But there were other issues at play. In 2019, the law societies of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan received the results from a survey of current and former articling students in those provinces. The news was bad: About one-third of all respondents reported discrimination, harassment, or ineffective learning environments or experiences during their articling term.
The law society had other concerns, too. It was worried about the degree of competence possessed by lawyers in their first few years of practice. It noted (as have other jurisdictions) dwindling levels of engagement in continuous learning by more senior lawyers. It recognized the dangers of an aging profession with insufficient retirement and transition plans. And it saw that BIPOC and internationally trained lawyers carried heavier burdens in all these areas.
I was engaged in April to write a report analyzing these issues and making recommendations to improve lawyer licensing and competence in Alberta. Although law school and legal education were outside my commissioning scope, I was otherwise encouraged to draw whatever conclusions seemed to me fit and justifiable. Five months, 25 interviews, 80 pages, and 30,000 words later — and with the absolutely irreplaceable support and assistance of law society staff — I handed in my draft report. Three months later (last week, to be precise), the law society accepted the final report and all of its recommendations.
To find out every last detail of this document, I’d obviously suggest you read the full report (or at least the executive summary at the start). But for present purposes, and in necessarily broad strokes, I’ll summarize my major recommendations and observations below.
1. Nobody has a greater impact on a new lawyer’s early career than the lawyer with principal supervising authority during their articling term. Supervising an aspiring lawyer is accordingly a privilege to be earned, not a right to be asserted. Any lawyer who wishes to act as an articling student’s principal should successfully complete an application process and training program to qualify for the role.
2. Articling suffers from several defects and inadequacies, but its biggest fault is that it is the sole method by which Alberta lawyers can gain their required supervised practice experience. The law society should develop new “pathways to practice” that provide consistency, defensibility, and accessibility, to supplement (and conceivably to soon replace) articling, such as a Law Practice Program, an integrated practice curriculum in law school, or a law society-sponsored “teaching law firm.”
3. There is no evidence that Alberta lawyers in their first three years of practice pose an outsized competence risk. But these lawyers, like early-stage lawyers everywhere, are credentialed and sent into the market before they are ready. The law society should provide a mandatory annual fleet of training, knowledge, and support programs in law practice management, business operations, client relationships, and other practical areas of critical importance for new practitioners in their first three years.
4. Articling students and new lawyers receive inadequate levels and types of supervision, particularly when it comes to their formative and restorative development (transitioning to practice, receiving mentorship, maintaining mental and emotional health). Every new lawyer should be automatically “opted in” to one of Alberta’s two outstanding lawyer mentoring programs (with the option to opt out for any reason).
5. Alberta’s self-assessment and learning outcomes CPD system is fundamentally sound and represents best practices in professional adult education worldwide; the province should not switch to an hours-based system. But the current system should be improved, by training lawyers in the art of skill self-assessment, focusing more on learning outcomes than activities, instituting random audit checkups to ensure lawyers’ compliance with their learning activity commitments, and periodically providing mandatory activities for all lawyers in areas of core competence less likely to be addressed individually.
6. Lawyers with more than 20 years at the bar present demonstrably lower levels of competence risk, and senior lawyers generally find most CPD activities lacking in relevance or utility. The law society should provide these lawyers with an optional CPD system that allows them to fulfill their learning requirements by engaging in a program of mentoring, new lawyer education and training, and public legal education and service.
7. Sole practitioners are the backbone of access to justice for individuals and families, especially in smaller communities; but they are unfairly under-resourced and overburdened with management duties compared to their colleagues in larger law firms. Lawyers who wish to start sole practice should be required to complete a training program to provide them with the knowledge, support, and resources to help them practise effectively and competitively. Given the risks to their clients of a sole practitioner’s incapacitation, these lawyers should also be required to create and file with the law society a business continuity plan.
I also made several observations throughout the report (or during my preparation of it) that were not submitted as actual recommendations, but that I felt warranted attention:
- The airtight separation of legal knowledge and legal practice in law school is fundamentally wrong and needs to be addressed at the earliest feasible opportunity, through a collaborative process involving multiple justice system stakeholders.
- Lawyers who are Black, Indigenous, persons of colour, or internationally trained suffer systemic discrimination and unfair treatment throughout their careers but especially at the outset. This needs to be addressed and corrected.
- CPLED’s bar admission program, which focuses on lawyer skills and experience and does not include anything like a “bar exam,” is a best practices model for lawyer licensing that every other jurisdiction should study and emulate.
- “Graduated licensing” is an impractical solution to a different and fundamental problem: Lawyers enter practice three to five years before they are truly ready to serve clients effectively. We must reform lawyer formation altogether.
- “Minimum hours of CLE” is an antiquated input-based learning measure that provides no assurance lawyers have learned anything that will help them serve clients or practise law more effectively. CPD programs should abandon it.
There are several other aspects of lawyer licensing and competence assurance that are worth further exploration, but the law society did not engage me to write a scholarly treatise on the subject. My report aimed to be as practical and implementable as could be managed, given the realities of limited budgets, lawyers’ deep aversion to change, and the small matter of the pandemic. Most of all, I wanted to give the people at the law society a realistic blueprint for making incremental but important improvements to the province’s lawyer licensing and competence systems.
That last point gives me an opportunity to acknowledge with gratitude everyone at the Law Society of Alberta who was instrumental in bringing this report to fruition. Among the lawyers, I want to single out Ken Warren Q.C. and Stacy Petriuk Q.C., Chair and Vice-Chair of the Lawyer Competence Committee, as well as all their colleagues on that committee; among staff, there are too many people to thank individually, but I want to highlight CEO and Executive Director Elizabeth Osler Q.C. and, in particular, Deputy Executive Director Cori Ghitter, without whom (as I said in the report’s closing lines) the report could not have been written.
I’d welcome any feedback that you might have about this report or the points raised in this post. And if you’d like to read my less diplomatically phrased observations about the state of lawyer development, licensing, and ongoing competence today, I invite you to read about my new career focus and the back story to this report, right here.