Lawyers and learning
William M. Everett, QC
Early in our careers we recognize that each client, each file presents an opportunity to learn something new about the law, as well as human nature. But taking the time for more formalized learning isn't easy, especially as our practices and our lives grow busier. We feel pressure to do more - so how do we fit it all in? I do not intend this question as rhetorical. Nor can I claim to answer it. After many years of the Law Society making assumptions about how lawyers learn (or should learn), we are starting to look more deeply.
That means examining afresh the whole spectrum of continuing legal education, both as a matter of lawyer competence and professional responsibility. In 2002 we struck a task force to develop proposals for a "comprehensive, strategic approach to promoting the excellence and competence of lawyers through post-call learning and information support." In part, we wanted to clarify the Law Society's own role in continuing legal education. We also realized that we needed to assess the educational needs and interests of BC lawyers, to evaluate the effectiveness of continuing legal education in BC offered by various educational providers (as to quality, availability and pricing) and to consider a range of options for reforms.
The Lawyer Education Task Force, chaired by Bencher Patricia Schmit, QC, is laying everything on the table for consideration - from different ways of enhancing educational resources in BC, to publishing educational guidelines for the profession, to requiring lawyers to report on the courses they have taken voluntarily. And yes, as controversial as it has been, mandatory continuing legal education is an option for consideration. The Task Force, however, is also looking at lawyer competence more generally. That means reviewing current Law Society practice support programs and the effect of programs run by other law societies and professional bodies.
We expect the results of the Task Force study and the options for consideration to come to the Benchers table later in 2004. For now, identifying the options and consulting with the profession is key. Last year the Task Force members themselves contacted a small sample of lawyers to ask what continuing legal education they want and need. A more formal consultation on continuing legal education needs was underway in October - through an Ipsos-Reid telephone survey of 400 lawyers province-wide, the results of which are expected to be published on the Law Society website in February.
I am very pleased we are engaged in this work. I'm especially happy that we are listening to the views of BC lawyers. While I don't know what conclusions the Task Force will draw, I thought I'd flag a few interesting things that lawyers are telling us so far. First, although courses remain a common way for BC lawyers to stay current, the most popular resource in the profession is publications. Some 94% of lawyers in the Ipsos-Reid survey say they use legal publications as an educational resource (43% do so frequently), with those respondents assessing the publications now available as both useful and of good quality. Course materials followed in popularity, used by 89% of respondents.
As for courses, seminars and workshops, 69% say they attend courses and 38% say they attend in-house workshops and seminars. According to the Ipsos-Reid survey, lawyers identified several barriers to attending courses: in particular, the time, cost and travel involved.
If lawyers are fond of publications as a means of staying current, they also have a growing affection for online information. And some of the best online information is close to home. In the Task Force's own consultations, for example, many lawyers praised the website of the Continuing Legal Education Society of BC (CLE) as "an outstanding resource." And in the Ipsos-Reid survey, many respondents spontaneously mentioned the CLE website and its award-winning case digest service as resources they use.
This is a promising sign for CLE and other educational publishers who are moving online. I pause here to commend CLE for embracing technology as a way of reaching lawyers in all areas of law, in all parts of the province. CLE, which already successfully publishes over 40 books and 200 course manuals, piloted an online version of its Probate Practice Manual last year. In 2004 CLE plans to launch a formal online version of that manual, plus up to 10 other practice manuals, 1,500 forms and precedents and all of its course materials. This collection will make it easier for lawyers to gain access to the publications whenever they need them and wherever they are.
Also in 2004, CLE plans to offer online archived videos of its courses, supported by course materials and links to resources.
Finally, BC lawyers will soon have the opportunity to sign up for real-time webcasting of CLE courses. If you haven't participated in webcasting, this technology provides audio via telephone and online visuals (such as Power Point slides) via the web. Apart from convenience, an advantage of webcasting is interactivity since participants can relay their questions or comments and participate in polls. If time or distance to a course are problems, this is a chance to try a new way of learning - and to give CLE the feedback it needs to move forward with new technologies. Webcasts are planned for CLE's courses on Manufactured Home Registry and LTO e-filing (see details on pages 21 and 24).
The profession doesn't yet have a base of experience with online learning, so even webcasting of courses may seem unfamiliar. Yet I believe technology can offer many solutions, provided educators recognize the need for creativity and lawyers are prepared to try new things. As the tools become more sophisticated (and they will), as different media of communication merge and new technologies emerge, the future looks promising.
This is just a taste of what's ahead. In the coming months, you will hear more on the work of the Lawyer Education Task Force, what BC lawyers are saying they want from continuing legal education and what the future might look like for career-long learning, in all its dimensions.