“New Firm Practice Course” to meet the needs of small firms

Beginning in early 2007, BC lawyers who enter into a solo law practice or who join a small law firm will be expected to complete the “New Firm Practice Course” — a free, online course designed to cover the essentials of setting up and operating a practice.

The New Firm Practice Course will be a requirement for lawyers moving into solo or small firm practice and available to all other BC lawyers on a voluntary basis. Designed to be self-paced and self-testing, the course will allow lawyers to measure their own progress and understanding of key practice issues — ranging from practice management to trust accounting to technology issues and various pitfalls of practice. A lawyer will complete each self-testing component of the course before moving to the next, and the entire course will take six to eight hours to complete. There will be no course examination.

The Benchers approved the creation of the new course on recommendation of the Lawyer Education Task Force, chaired by Patricia Schmit, QC, now a Life Bencher. As the Task Force noted in reporting to the Benchers last November, “A solid ability to manage one’s practice is a key component to a lawyer’s ability to practise law competently and effectively.”

Why is the course planned for small firms?

More than one in two BC lawyers currently practises alone or in a small firm. And in many cases these lawyers face special challenges.

“Law Society data shows the great majority of lawyers in sole and small firm practice provide effective legal services,” the Lawyer Education Task Force told the Benchers, “but as a group they are disproportionately faced with the pressures of geographic isolation, working alone or in small groups without ready access to colleagues in the profession, demands to attend to law office management and administrative work, rising overheads and narrower profit margins.”

The Task Force urged that the Law Society be proactive in “supporting sole and small firm lawyers in delivering quality legal services and sustaining viable law practices.” The New Firm Practice Course is a step in that direction.

Which lawyers will be required take the course?

The New Firm Practice Course is expected to be mandatory for 1) lawyers beginning a sole or small firm practice for the first time, 2) lawyers returning to sole or small firm practice after three or more years away from that situation and 3) lawyers in small firms who are new signatories on trust accounts. The exact criteria, including what constitutes a “small firm” for the purpose of the course requirement, will be confirmed in the near future, following consultations.

BC lawyers who practise solo or in a small firm on the date the New Firm Practice Course comes into effect will be grandparented and exempt from the course requirement. Similarly, lawyers who transfer to BC from jurisdictions that have implemented the Federation of Law Societies’ National Mobility Agreement will be exempt for purposes of practising in BC — provided they are in sole or small firm practice in their home jurisdictions on the implementation date. All lawyers, however, will be encouraged to complete the course.

How will the course be structured?

The New Firm Practice Course will be offered via the internet, with topics covered in modular components. An online course has the advantage of being accessible to all lawyers regardless of the time or their location. It is ideal for self-paced learning. Lawyers will simply work through the components and complete the self-tests in their own time. Those who are required to take the course must complete all components within six months. In total, the course is expected to take no more than six to eight hours to complete.

What are the course components?

The Law Society is seeking feedback on course components that lawyers would find most useful. The current plan is for the course to offer these modules:

Setting up and operating a law practice
  • trust accounting requirements, including trust reporting and working with a bookkeeper,
  • tax, including employee income tax,
  • interest income on trust accounts,
  • technology in law practice, including office systems, e-filing and legal research and legal information resources,
  • retainer agreements,
  • acquiring retainer funds in advance and billing practices,
  • file retention and disposal practices,
  • law practice coverage during absences / continuity for catastrophic occurrences,
  • withdrawing legal services.
Avoiding pitfalls in practice
  • conflict checks, including systems
  • client screening
  • managing difficult clients
  • identifying conflicts
  • diary system
  • file management and documentation
  • delegation of tasks supervision
  • avoiding being a dupe / avoiding fraud.

Related course materials will include links to practice management resources, further reading, forms, precedents, courses and contacts for information and practice support. Optional components are also planned — on creating a business plan and increasing profitability. In future years, live workshops on practice management may be offered to complement the online course.

The Law Society’s Small Firm Task Force is undertaking consultations on the course and other issues affecting lawyers in small firms. If you have questions, suggestions or comments on the New Firm Practice Course, please contact the Task Force chair or staff liaison (see What can the Law Society do to help the small firm lawyer? for contact information).