The articling program for new lawyers in Alberta involves two parts. There are the articles of clerkship, which in layman's terms is the practical experience part, akin to the residency requirement in medical training; and then there are the courses, which are called CPLED. Alberta, rather than having a "bar exam," has a series of courses that you are required to take to verify that you meet the minimum standard of competence in a number of areas.
Until recently, the articles of clerkship required you to check off a certain number of substantive areas of law that you were going to learn in your practical experience. If I try to remember mine, I think they would have been Administrative Law, Wills and Estates, Real Estate, Litigation, and Legislative Drafting, or something to that effect. Most came from a standard list, others could be added or substituted.
The law society, in their new education plan, have dropped the idea that your practical experience should teach you about substantive or even practice areas of law.
This is good. Because what you can learn from a year of doing litigation closely approximates nil, and articling students in most firms don't litigate. They research.
The LSA has instead looked at the list of competencies set out by the Federation of Law Societies three years ago, and seems to have decided to assign a certain set of them to the articles in place of the practice or substantive areas.
New articling students will now be expected to get experience in areas like:
- Ethics and Professionalism
- Practice Management
- Client Relationship Management
- Conducting Matters
- Adjudication/Alternative Dispute Resolution
The actual form itself (for some reason) includes a list of suggested activities to achieve these areas of competence. It is a strong and helpful list.
A couple of things strike me.
First, this is definitely a step in the right direction. More than anything, I am impressed at the fact that the education requirements now better reflect what a lawyer would need to know in order to work as a sole practitioner, as opposed to allowing firms to merely train researchers who remain dependent on them for employment.
The LSA is to be congratulated for moving forward on that.
Second, I'm not sure the lawyers are the right people to be doing the teaching, for several of these things. I'm not sure that all the lawyers understand the intricacies of the time management and financial and calendaring and bring-forward systems as well as the senior assistants, do, and so I think the assistants are going to be, appropriately, an important resource for articling students and principals to meet these learning objectives. Less true in smaller firms, but very true in larger ones.
Third, as the Law Society points out, all law firms, even single-practice-area law firms, deal with all five of those areas on a regular basis. It is now conceivable for a solo family practitioner, for example, to be able to commit to instructing an articling student in all of the required areas, which should vastly increase the number of potential articling places, and the variety of work environments available to articling students. This is also an excellent step in the right direction to giving articling students more options for where to article, and also letting them experience a wider array of options for how to practice after articles.
Fourth, and this is where I have to have some skepticism, the previous system is one in which law firms promise what they are going to teach the articling student, and then at the end of the year they say they kept that promise to their articling student. The articling student, motivated to be admitted to the bar, generally agrees. There is no independent disinterested verification of whether the lessons are actually taught, and as a direct result... wait for it... they often aren't.
I know, I know. In the words of Iago the bird from Disney's Alladin, I'm sure you're going to have a heart attack and die from that surprise.
The firm's primary motivation, unfortunately, is often profit. And teaching the articling student working in your litigation department how to do real estate is inefficient. So firms were poorly motivated, if extrinsically motivated at all, to do it properly before. Now, they are being asked to actively participate in giving their articling students the skills that they would need in order to leave their employ.
Colour me pessimistic, if you like, but I think expecting large law firms to be motivated to do that job well is a bit naive. Law firms regularly state that it takes 5 years, including an articling year, before they can "make their money back" on a new lawyer. They are motivated to teach them how to work at that firm, but they are not motivated to teach them what they would need to know to leave.
But to be fair, that is not a problem that the LSA has created by changing the plan, it is merely a problem that the LSA has not solved by changing the plan.
An articling student who takes seriously the good advice of the Federation of Law Societies and the Law Society of Alberta as to what they need to know to be beginning lawyers, and who takes personal responsibility for learning it, regardless of whether or not anyone is particularly interested in teaching it, will emerge from their article better prepared for the practice of law than anyone in my cohort whose education was limited to the contents of the plan. Which is probably most of us.