In my view, the key issues for benchers in the next term will be professional competence, access to justice, alternative business structures and support for the diversity of the bar. In considering these issues, the benchers are bound by their mandate to govern the profession in the public interest.
Lawyers who are licensed to serve the public must have the necessary skills and knowledge for today’s legal environment. The profession must have rigorous entrance standards that are fairly and transparently applied. We have candidates from many law schools. Their practical skills have come from articling (and not all articling position are equal), the LPP, Lakehead Law School (which embeds practical training and placements in its curriculum) or from practise in a common law jurisdiction. At present, the only entrance examinations are multiple choice questions on substantive law. There needs to be a skills assessment for all candidates to ensure they have the basic skills for practice, for instance, skills for analyzing problems, drafting standard materials and interviewing.
I realize that that there are costs to more complex testing which students burdened by heavy debt loads can ill afford. We must continue to look for ways to lessen the costs of obtaining a legal education to the extent we can within our jurisdiction. As part of the Articling Task Force and Vice Chair of PD&C, I have encouraged law schools to teach practical skills to lawyers. I supported Lakehead Law School which teaches practical and substantive skills together and facilitates practice placements thus allowing students to be called after graduation and licensing exams without articling or the LPP. The debt burden on students is a concern at the Law Society and a consideration in anything we do but we can’t sacrifice the standards expected of lawyers by the public because of high university and law school tuition.
Access to Justice is a Law Society priority that is largely delivered by those in smaller practices. In my view, we must continue to support and advocate for increased legal aid for citizens who do not have the resources to retain lawyers but we must also maximize the value of local libraries and develop resources that assist those in smaller firms to effectively and efficiently provide access to justice for the public.
Alternative business structures have created considerable controversy in the press. The Law Society is continuing to seek input from the profession on whether and, if so what, alternative business structures would assist lawyers and law firms to better serve the public. We are also reviewing and seeking any and all empirical evidence on the impact of alternative business structures in other jurisdictions. Any change in this area must prioritize the best interests of the clients and be carefully thought out. If changes are warranted, they should be made cautiously as there will be no going back. As benchers, we are required to keep an open mind on this issue until all the evidence is in. I am honouring that obligation.
The Law Society has undertaken a consultation with the profession on the challenges faced by racialized lawyers. The consultation is not yet complete and no initiatives will be undertaken until it is done. At present, I am inclined to think that an initiative similar to that undertaken to support the retention of women in private practice, the Justicia project, might be appropriate but I will have to await the conclusion of the consultations and the recommendations of the committees before making up my mind.