The Current State of Law Practice Management Training in Ontario

  • 01 octobre 2018
  • Kayla Cardinal Lafrance

Discussion about modernizing access to the profession includes acquiring law practice management skills before being called to the bar.

The Law Society of Ontario released a paper earlier this year proposing solutions to improve the prerequisites to being called to the bar, many of which include a place for experiential learning. What seems consistent is that there is a place needed for acquiring law practice management skills before being called to the bar in order to thrive in the legal industry. This is only more obvious as practicing law involves abilities and responsibility beyond an academic mastery of the law, great work ethic, and making a good impression at an interview.

As uncomfortable as it is to point out, not all articling positions offer the opportunity to produce innovative and diverse legal practitioners with relevant or comprehensive experience upon completion of articling. This is not to say that the articling experience is without its merits, but the incentive to offer to new law grads the emotional guidance and entrepreneurial know-how needed to acquire law practice management skills is not always obvious and often comes piecemeal, if at all. There is no denying that the practice of law is a long learning process, but one can wonder if there's a way to speed it up.

Innovative programs attempt to respond to this need by offering new grads a space to experiment and develop their law practice management skills. With the fall season starting comes also the latest cohorts of Law Practice Program candidates, one in Toronto and one in Ottawa, trying out their law practice management skills in a simulated work environment. In its fifth year of operation, these types of experiential learning opportunities still have doubters skeptical of it being a worthwhile investment. What is clear is that the LPP is one of the only options that systematically teaches law practice management skills in a holistic way before entering the profession.

"The entry-level practice management skills requirements aren't new," says Christiane Saad, Director for the Programme de pratique du droit (the Ottawa Law Practice Program). Referencing the National Entry to Practice Competency Profile, Saad adds "It's simply hard to guarantee that an articling experience will cover all of the 80+ practical skills and tasks competencies in all cases, followed by objective criticism and multiple opportunities to improve. The Law Practice Program does that and does it consistently."

André Bacchus, Assistant Director at Ryerson’s LPP, has had the opportunity to experience both articling and the LPP in a managing capacity. Formerly responsible for recruiting and training articling students at a large Bay Street firm, Bacchus says "Even when you have someone to train the students through professional development sessions, these would be condensed and not necessarily integrated with the files they are working on. In the best and ideal articling setting, the students would be trained to the best of our ability, but still not do everything. There is no guaranteed core foundation or set of experiences that a student would get from articling. That is just the nature of articling: doing the work that comes through the door for the next 10 months. It's a fundamental flaw because you do need folks to develop the practice management skillset. Exposure to the core skills is essential early on."

Bacchus now devotes his time to the approximately 220+ candidates annually of the Law Practice Program in Toronto. "The program is designed to elicit, develop and demonstrate those core skills as part of working on the files. The files are controlled, they've been created to ensure that all core skills are being tested and developed as part of the process," adds Bacchus. "The idea is if you're doing it now for 17 weeks, you'll be able to take those skills and put them into practice in your work placement and, ultimately, they become second nature to you when you get called to the bar and are in practice. It's a safer and better way to train."

"The reality is, when you article in one firm or a smaller firm which specializes in a certain practice area, you will get knowledge of a certain type of law practice," says Caroline Etter, Executive Director and Professional Partner of Power Law in Ottawa. "If you're interested in anything else, or would like more professional development or diversity, and again depending on the type of law firm you will article at, you're not going to get it during an  articling experience." By contrast, initiatives like the Law Practice Program offer exposure to many different kinds of law practice skills in various legal fields over the course of 4 months.

"Over the years, after speaking and working with many students, it's clear to me that many lack the knowledge of the reality of the management of a law practice itself upon completion of their law degree and may even sometimes end up in a practice they didn't expect to have because of many factors," adds Etter. "A lot of young professionals don't realize and know how to exploit the opportunities that they have. Why not teach them to be better lawyers from the beginning and educate them on their options before being called to the bar?"

In her free time, Etter shares over 15 years of private and public sector law practice management experience with the candidates of the Ottawa Law Practice Program. The LPP is a way to be exposed to and experiment with law practice ideas from a variety of experienced and current actors in the legal field, with the added benefit of not having to assume a lot of risk in a simulated space. "I give them real world examples of practice management situations that I've personally experienced and an overview of variables to consider and how to address and deal with them." The candidates benefit from a variety of experts like Etter who drop in daily between simulated practice tasks to deliver short seminars, tips and tricks pertaining to their professional experience. Every week, the specificities of a field of law's practice management skills are overviewed with the candidates, then the candidates act it out and get evaluated daily with detailed feedback.

Marrying the business reality of law practice with professional obligations has always been challenging, and transmitting the knowledge is not often straightforward in legal education as it stands now. Law practice management skills remain learnable and teachable skills with proper mentorship, guidance, and appropriate practical experience of the business of law between academic learning and being called to the bar. Going without these key experiences can be a serious impediment to motivation as a new professional. Still, there isn't much incentive in the current articling model to produce self-sufficient practitioners able to start up or embark on an innovative legal practice.

Adopting the lens of a struggle between limited articling positions versus too many practitioners and incoming law school graduates seems inappropriate with a simultaneous discourse that decries an access to justice crisis. Neither does maintaining a lens of valuing tradition and stigmatizing new initiatives while simultaneously calling out a need for innovative and a diversity of ideas in the legal industry. It's hard to say who should be solving these problems, but recent grads deserve multiple opportunities to thrive, make their mark, and even attempt to offer solutions themselves to these problems, forging their own way.

According to their website, the call for feedback on the Law Society of Ontario's proposed solutions for prerequisites to the bar is still ongoing until October 26th 2018.


Any article or other information or content expressed or made available in this Section is that of the respective author and not of the OBA.