Getting to “I Do”
by Timothy E. McGee
Three times a year I recite the barristers and solicitors’ oath to bar admission candidates in Vancouver and invite them to respond “I Do.” With that affirmation, presentation to the court and the signing of the rolls of the Law Society the candidates complete a long and difficult haul to qualify as lawyers licensed to practise law in BC. In 2010 the Law Society will license over 400 lawyers, including both new calls and lawyers transferring to BC from other provinces under the national lawyer mobility rules.
The rigorous path to bar admission includes years of university, law school, articling and successful completion of the Law Society’s professional legal training course, known as PLTC.
Whether or not this is the best model for preparing candidates for the practice of law is a critical question currently being investigated by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. Over the next year, a task force of the Federation (on which I sit) will assess the present approach across Canada with a view to establishing a uniform national standard for admission.
When PLTC was introduced by the Law Society in 1984, it was a pioneer program because it focused on teaching and assessing practical lawyering skills as a requirement of bar admission. While the PLTC approach is no longer novel in Canada, it continues to be a foundation of establishing entry level competence for new lawyers. What has also emerged as an important feature of PLTC is what Lynn Burns, the Director of PLTC, calls a sense of the “community of the bar,” which is fostered in the program.
The PLTC experience is designed to help students transition from the academic bent of law school to the world of the practising lawyer. This is achieved in part by simulating real-life situations and teaching skills such as negotiation and practice management. Volunteers and guests from all segments of the bar as well as PLTC faculty play a big part in making these simulations literally come to life. Perhaps most importantly, the students have a safe place to make mistakes and to receive constructive feedback. A sense of community emerges in which students, teachers, volunteers and guests all work together in helping to lay part of the foundation for practice.
The Law Society through its Key Performance Measures annually assesses the utility of the PLTC program, including through satisfaction surveys of students and principals. The results show the skills-based community learning approach is working.
Critics of skills-based training approaches to professional certification suggest that those efforts only scratch the surface of what must be learned experientially outside the classroom. Some even suggest that such approaches create a false sense of preparedness. The Law Society recognizes that PLTC is only one initial step in the journey of becoming a competent lawyer, but a foundational step nonetheless. Recognition of the value of practical training is also reflected in the growing popularity and importance of clinical law programs offered in law schools across the country. We also recognize the importance of post-call opportunities for new lawyers to learn from their peers and colleagues, to engage in continuous professional development, and to be mentored.
It is a daunting challenge for the Federation’s task force on national admissions, but an exciting and important one. The task force will initially focus on two core areas; lawyering competencies and character and fitness. Because of the success which the skills-based approach has had in bar admission programs across the country such as in PLTC, I would be surprised if that approach did not form part of a future model for national standards.
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