An update on continuing professional development

An informal assessment prepared for the Federation of Law Societies of Canada last year shows that the legal profession lags behind most other Canadian professions when it comes to continuing professional development requirements.

That, however, is changing quickly as several law societies are now considering continuing professional development programs — both mandatory and voluntary — along with innovative ways for lawyers to ensure they keep current with trends and developments in their practices.

Reported hours of self-study in 2006
  chart: Reported hours of self-study in 2006
Reported hours of structured study in 2006
  chart: Reported hours of structured study in 2006
  Since January 2005, the Law Society has required lawyers to report their professional development activities. The Society has also established voluntary minimum expectations of 50 hours of self-study and 12 hours of course work a year.

Ontario began the process in 2002 when the Law Society of Upper Canada required lawyers to report the number of hours of professional development they undertake. The society also established voluntary “minimum expectations” of 12 hours of continuing education and 50 hours of self-study a year.

BC followed suit in 2004 with a similar mandatory reporting program and voluntary minimum expectations.

The Law Society of Alberta is currently considering a mandatory program that will see lawyers develop their own individual education plans with the assistance of an online, self-assessment tool that suggests relevant learning possibilities.

BC notaries have recently instituted a mandatory education program that requires members with greater than five year’s experience to take six hours of educational programs in 2007-2008 and nine hours in 2008-2009.

Most law societies are also abandoning the notion that professional development means exclusively classroom learning. Many now recognize a broad range of activities, from teaching and writing to in-house educational sessions and professional seminars. And it is not just traditional lawyering skills such as trial advocacy and research that lawyers are being urged to study. Practice survival skills such as time management and marketing are also on most lists.

Last year, the president of Manitoba’s law society, Jon van der Krabben, wrote in the June edition of the society’s newsletter, Communiqué, that the lack of post-call education requirements “will not go unnoticed indefinitely by the government of the day and the general public.” He urged the profession “to deal with the situation up front and on our own terms, rather than having someone tell us what to do, or worse yet, losing some of our rights to self-govern.”

In fact, governments are already telling professions that continuing education is a necessary part of their mandate. New legislation governing professions often includes provisions for mandatory post-admission education. Alberta’s Regulated Accounting Professions Act — which brought the three accounting organizations under one umbrella in 1999 — says each of the three governing bodies must have a continuing competence program. In BC, the Health Professions Act states that one of the objects of the governing bodies of each of the health professions is to establish a continuing competency program.

Here in BC, statistics from the professional development reporting program show that over the past two-and-one-half years, only 50 per cent of the profession met the suggested standard of 12 or more hours of structured study annually. Almost 35 per cent reported no continuing education at all. This latter number increases steadily according to length of time in practice, with 55 per cent of those called for more than 30 years reporting no continuing education.

In addition, only 45 per cent of BC’s lawyers met the suggested minimum requirement for self-study of 50 hours. Twenty per cent reported no self-study. Again, the percentage of lawyers reporting no self-study increases with length of call.

The Lawyer Education Committee is currently considering four broad options for a formal continuing professional development program: 1) a program requiring a certain number of hours of study, of which a portion requires the study of certain subjects; 2) a program of required courses for all lawyers, with the remainder of hours to be made up of activities chosen by lawyers; 3) a program of required courses for certain areas of practice; and 4) a program requiring a certain number of hours of study through approved activities. The committee is also looking at a wide range of activities that could be classified as professional development, including coaching and mentoring programs, study groups, and teaching PLTC (see: Benchers’ Bulletin 2006 No. 5 November-December).

The committee is mindful of the importance of ensuring that lawyers throughout BC can fulfil the requirements without the necessity of travelling to Vancouver or to any location that would be a significant distance from their offices.

The committee has discussed the options with the Canadian Bar Association (BC Branch), the Trial Lawyers Association, the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association and the Continuing Legal Education Society of BC, and will continue to consult at meetings of local Bar associations. The committee is preparing a report for the Benchers that will be distributed to the profession later this year for comments.

Lawyer Education Committee

The Benchers have re-established the Lawyer Education Task Force as a standing committee to ensure there is a coordinated approach to long-term development of education policy.

Law Society task forces usually work on a specific project for a limited time whereas committees play a broader, on-going role in policy development.

The new Lawyer Education Committee, chaired by Kootenay Bencher Bruce LeRose, QC, continues the task force’s work on continuing professional development and will look at other pre- and post-call education issues.