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Helping New Lawyers Become Practice-Ready

Everyone seems to agree that law school new graduates are not practice-ready, but there continues to be disagreement about how ready they should be at that stage of their careers. This discussion has been going on for at least 30 years, and the debate continues to rage. The latest edition of the National sets it all out, highlighting the challenges inherent in changing the law school curriculum, along with some law school innovations that have taken hold. This topic was also the focus of a recent CBA Futures workshop entitled Transforming Legal Education in Canada: a Workshop to Inspire Change.

In Canada, at least, we don’t expect law school graduates to be ready to hang out their shingles right away. Law school is not the end of pre-call training. Unlike the United States (where passing a bar exam is all that’s needed), we require that law students complete a period of articles along with some form of bar admission course or bar exam. (One exception is the Ontario Law Practice Program that may be completed in place of articling.)

The BC Law Society recently reviewed its pre-call program of nine months of articling plus 10 weeks of the Professional Legal Training Course. Earlier this month, the Lawyer Education Advisory Committee presented its thorough and thoughtful report to the Benchers. The committee enthusiastically supports the current program; the general tenor of the report is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Meanwhile, the Federation of Law Societies has also been active in this space. They developed a national entry-level competence profile (now adopted by 13 law societies). They are now working on a national assessment proposal to provide consistency in how law societies assess competence. BC’s Lawyer Education Advisory Committee, though, has concerns about the proposal, given that the proposed exams would cover national law only. The Benchers will address these issues in the near future.

What do we hear from new lawyers about their practice-readiness? At a recent conference for CLE providers, we interviewed and surveyed new lawyers (both Canadian and American) from our jurisdictions. They were asked about they were enjoying about the practice of law, their greatest challenges and concerns, what they wish they knew more of, and their most critical needs.

The collected results were fascinating and in some cases, heartbreaking. Practical how-to information was mentioned again and again (often with a distinction from what’s taught at law school). Many new lawyers wished for a mentor, as well as basic information about how to run a law practice. Overall, most seemed to be excited and energized about their new work; they also seemed very anxious. (The heartbreaking responses came from those who were still looking for work.)

Whether or not we think newly called lawyers are practice ready, CLE providers and publishers are fully engaged in supporting new lawyers in their first few years of practice (and indeed throughout their professional life). Here at CLEBC we have a wide array of courses and publications to meet these needs.

For example, we publish a set of detailed and comprehensive practice guides for all major practice areas. When we developed our BC practice manuals, the authors, editorial board, and legal editor tried to address what a new lawyer with little exposure to this area needs to know. We also provide a full range of courses (including skills training) to support new lawyers, such as our Winning Advocacy Skills Workshop, a three-day intensive advocacy training program.

In other words, new lawyers aren’t abandoned to their fate the moment they are called to the bar. CLE providers face some important challenges, though: it’s hard for new lawyers to afford these fabulous resources if they’re carrying over $100,000 in student debt. We try to provide some help through our bursary program.

CLEBC CEO Ron Friesen recently participated in the CBA’s Transforming Legal Education workshop. He suggests a just-in-time model for delivering post-call training and resources. As he says, the challenge is to identify real-world skill and knowledge gaps and then make helpful tools (explanations, procedures, checklists) available as and when needed.

Many tools already exist within CLEBC resources as checklists, precedents, guides, and procedures or as video explanations, overviews, and demonstrations. We’re looking for ways to pull together these resources in different ways depending on the information or learning need—perhaps starting with an interview checklist, then an overview of law, a process diagram, and a list of red flags.

Figuring out how to deliver just-in-time learning is our latest challenge. But we believe this format and delivery method will provide even better support to help new lawyers become practice-ready.

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