It's time to reform the admissions program
Richard S. Margetts, Q.C.
On March 30 and 31, the Benchers dedicated their annual retreat to the Law Society admissions program and launched an important study of reform and enhancement for the Professional Legal Training Course (PLTC) and articling.
A key component of the Law Society's statutory obligation to protect the public interest is to admit to practice only those lawyers who are equipped to provide to the public effective entry-level legal services. To ensure that only qualified lawyers practise law, the Law Society requires law school graduates to complete successfully the 10-week PLTC and nine months of articling.
Since its creation in 1984, PLTC has earned high regard throughout the Commonwealth as a pioneer and leader in bar admission education and training. In an effort to ensure continued excellence in the program, PLTC came under external review in 1986 and 1998. Articling, however, has not yet come under similar review.
A Law Society survey of principals and articled students indicates that all too often students do not receive adequate training in articles to prepare them to practise law competently. Respondents flagged problems of principals not taking their role as trainers and mentors seriously enough, instead relying on PLTC.
Articling differs significantly from student to student, and from firm to firm. Students and firms settle on the articling relationship without assistance or direction from the Law Society. Although the Society provides guidelines to students and articling principals about what should happen during articles, the Society does not monitor compliance or ensure that principals actually provide the necessary training or mentorship.
The Benchers recognize that this situation needs to change. What has also become clear is that the 10-week PLTC skills training program is carved out of the articling year in such a way that a student's experience in the law firm is often entirely distinct from PLTC skills training. For too many students, PLTC and articling are the two solitudes of professional legal education.
Enhancement of articling deserves a very high priority. The articling term is the only part of the legal education process - from the first day of law school to call to the bar - that is dedicated to assisting students acquire, in a real-life context, competence to practise law. As such, it is analogous to the teaching hospital experience for medical students, but unfortunately falls far short. Articling is clearly the weak link in legal education. Osgoode Hall Law School's Professor Allan Hutchinson has this to say about articling:
You're either a lackey for the boss: getting the coffee; picking up dry cleaning; endlessly photocopying - or you're in over your head: drafting contracts; fighting motions; interviewing witnesses; and doing other complicated tasks on your own. Today, there's nothing to do, tomorrow, you're pulling an all-nighter.
Your colleagues are your best friends and your fiercest competitors. It's the excitement, insecurity, fear, loathing, and relief - the best and worst of times. As one student puts it, 'it beats indentured servitude; but only just.'
There is real potential to enhance both articling and PLTC through meaningful reform, including their possible integration. To date, that potential has been largely ignored. Cooperative programs at universities and colleges demonstrate how institutional education and workplace experience can be integrated to provide the best preparation for students to enter the profession.
Now an Admissions Program Task Force, chaired by First Vice-President Richard Gibbs, Q.C., will study the options for reform and enhancement of the admissions program, including articles and PLTC, and will bring forward proposals.
The Task Force recognizes the importance of effective research and analysis, design and development, ongoing consultation and evaluation. Over the next few months, the Task Force will:
- research and investigate the effectiveness of articling in assisting students to become competent to begin the practice of law,
- identify and assess potential means for enhancing articling and PLTC,
- develop proposals for the integration and mutual strengthening of articling and PLTC,
- research and develop proposals for assisting articling principals to be more effective supervisors, teachers, mentors and evaluators,
- consider the desirability of articling education plans, to be completed by articling students and principals, and
- develop and propose mechanisms for enhancing articling for Aboriginal law students.
Other jurisdictions provide their own examples of innovation. Some Australian states and New Zealand have eliminated articling in favour of a more extensive bar admission course. By way of contrast, the Law Society of England and Wales mandates a two-year training contract as a pre-condition to admission to practice. The Law Society of Hong Kong does not permit solo practice until two years after call to the bar. Closer to home, Quebec has only a six-month articling requirement, but has articling principals assess the performance of their individual students as one of the tests of competence students must pass before being eligible for call. Many American states, in lieu of a bar admission course and articling, have implemented mandatory bridge-the- gap continuing legal education requirements for newly called lawyers, and have gone even further by implementing career-long mandatory continuing legal education.
The Task Force expects to report to the Benchers by year-end, after extensive consultation with the legal profession, the Bench, the law schools, the public and other professions. I would like to thank Richard Gibbs, Q.C. for the leadership he has shown on this issue and the Benchers for their commitment to excellence in our admissions program. And I extend an invitation to lawyers interested in the issues to reach the Task Force by contacting Alan Treleaven, Director, Professional Legal Training, by email at email@example.com, by telephone at (604) 605-5354 or by mail to the Law Society office. Mr. Treleaven is assisting the Task Force in its consultations.
On a personal note
I would like to take this opportunity to introduce our newest Lay Bencher, June Preston, a social worker from Victoria, who replaces Wendy John at the Benchers' table. We welcome her.
On a sad note, I mark the recent passing of Alfred Watts, Q.C., who was Law Society Secretary for 20 years from 1947-67, a Provincial Court judge and 1996 recipient of the Law Society Award. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.