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Evaluating CPLED

Cover Story
|Written By Jeffrey H. Waugh
Evaluating CPLED

In the Prairies, it takes eight months to do the bar course and it has no exams. Sound odd? For articling students in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, it’s the norm.

The theory behind the creation of this unique licensing program is solid, but it’s certainly seen its fair share of struggles.

The CPLED program (Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education) is entering its fifth year. While student feedback has been mixed, the curriculum appears to be making headway. As with anything new, there were (and still are) plenty of kinks to work out, but the program’s administration seems certain it can be done, with all three provinces showing a clear commitment to improvement. CPLED’s evolving nature is reflected in changes and adaptations to the feedback and criticism it receives.

If you’re from another part of the country, a brief overview may be helpful. The program operates over a period of eight months, overlapping with the articling term. Students are sectioned into small groups of 10 to 15, headed up by a learning-group facilitator who is there to respond to questions and provide guidance. There are eight modules, one per month. Five are completed online and the other three are in face-to-face settings like classrooms. Over the course of the modules, students are given 15 assignments and eight competency evaluations.

Rather than being exam-based, competency evaluations are used to determine which students do and do not make the cut. Students must receive a passing grade of “competency demonstrated” in order to continue on and eventually complete the bar admission program.

Sheila Redel, the director of professional education and competence at the Law Society of Manitoba, was highly involved in the creation of the CPLED program. “It came from the idea of national mobility,” says Redel. After realizing the regions could work together successfully on joint endeavours, they began to look for the next area to improve. Admission to the bar, a common element between all of the societies, was an obvious choice. “We decided that, in looking into that, there were all sorts of new education technologies available and new approaches to education.” With this in mind, and shared funding from the three provincial law societies, the CPLED program was developed over a two-year period.

The program has its strengths. For one, the length allows students to delve further into the subject areas. “It enables us to teach skills more intensively than we were able to in the past,” says Redel. The program director in Saskatchewan, Corina Farbacher, agrees that CPLED provides an invaluable experience for students through contact with high-profile teachers and presenters. “We offer access to judges, justices, and to some of the most experienced practitioners in the province. It is a fabulous opportunity to network, to learn, and to take advantage of their knowledge and experience.”

Technology is critical to the success of the program. Since five of the eight modules are completed online, the creators tried to find a system that would be easy to use and also allow for a sense of community. The Blackboard online course-management system was chosen. (For those not familiar, Blackboard Inc. acquired the WebCT system in 2006, which may be more widely known by university students). The site allows for chat and message boards, along with the ability to submit assignments through the web portal.

There are concerns, however, that students are losing valuable opportunities for social interaction with so much of the course being online. “It varies from group to group,” says Redel. “We have message boards available, and some of our learning groups — there are small pods of a dozen people — won’t have anything to say to each other during the year.” Other groups, she says, will use the boards for general information and even to set up social events between peers.

Not everyone agrees with the sense of community found in the online environment. Season Bowers, a lawyer with D’Arcy & Deacon LLP in Winnipeg, says she enjoyed the program and its many strengths, but would prefer more personal interaction. “The computer-based component of the program served to remove much of the interaction common to the conventional classroom learning style,” says Bowers. She says it’s difficult to communicate with the learning-group facilitators due to the lack of face-to-face contact.

Trevor Clarke is on a mission to fix that. Clarke has recently been appointed as the deputy director of the CPLED program in Alberta. He brings a fresh set of eyes to the curriculum, and hopes to use that to his advantage.

“When I first started, luckily there was a face-to-face, and so I was able to hold feedback sessions with the students in Edmonton and the students in Calgary and I was in a very unique position,” says Clarke.

It let him gather anonymous student feedback, since he had never had contact with any of the students before and didn’t know their names. Anonymity tends to lead to the most honest feedback. Clarke notes he felt some negativity and even anger from the students he talked to. He says he welcomed the criticism, though, and is taking it quite seriously with several plans to improve the administration of the program in Alberta, including the improvement of the online portal.

After 15 years in the education field, he has plenty of experience in providing students with effective learning environments. Clarke taught the business law course at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, where he used the Blackboard system with about 600 students each year. He plans on tailoring the CPLED site to better meet the needs of those going through the program, with enhanced feedback mechanisms and improved communication capabilities. “I know that we can change our Blackboard site quite significantly . . . in a way that will allow the students more communication, more feedback, and therefore more education,” says Clarke.

Timely and helpful feedback is critical for students, especially where one assignment builds off the previous one. Some students say the current system doesn’t provide the necessary responses to help them improve, nor does it give them the information that assists in supporting the evaluations they receive. Christopher Bruce is an articling student with Burnet Duckworth & Palmer LLP in Alberta. Along with Bowers, he voices concerns over the level and quality of feedback from the facilitators. Not only was the feedback limited, but at times it would also “bear little resemblance on a candidate’s outcome on the assignment,” says Bruce.

Winnipeg’s Bowers was pleased with the marking scheme overall, saying it gave a “comprehensive scope of requirements.” Still, the feedback on those requirements was extremely limited. “I’ve had the chance to hear many students in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan complain that there was very little feedback in relation to the marking scheme, especially on competency evaluations,” says Bowers. Part of this can be remedied by enhancing the training of the learning-group facilitators, who are the ones giving feedback to students.

Administrators are still working on how to do that.

Clarke points out facilitators get paid little, the positions are largely volunteer, and that demanding high standards from people volunteering their time can be a delicate issue. He says volunteers in all areas burn out, and he wants to make sure to avoid that when making changes to the program. They must take care to ensure standards are being met while still taking into account that they rely on volunteers.

Given the somewhat subjective nature of the marking scheme, consistency in grading policies becomes key. How does CPLED ensure each student is being subjected to the same marking standards? “We have a very structured marking sheet of specific things that they are looking for, very detailed,” says Redel in Manitoba. Administrators have weekly conference calls with facilitators to be sure that everything is in line.

“I hope to reduce that, the amount of inconsistency, by stepping up the training of the LGFs, and, again, using the Blackboard site in a different way will enable me to do that in a way that hasn’t been done before,” says Clarke. This would include allowing administrators to use the online portal for timely and efficient communications with the learning-group facilitators — an easier and faster alternative to balancing schedules for weekly conference calls and distribution of circulars.

Another issue of contention among students is the integrity policy. It prohibits any form of collaboration or discussion of the assignments and evaluations with peers, providing a penalty for “revealing or providing the content of an assignment, competency evaluation, or examination to any other person.” Many students feel the policy is too harsh. “I would have appreciated a better opportunity to discuss with my peers and other lawyers the issues and topics raised in our assignments,” says Bruce, who completed the CPLED program in March 2008. “Law does not operate in a vacuum, and to force students to not communicate questions or discuss ideas with peers is entirely an artificial construction on the part of CPLED.”

Clarke recognizes those concerns but says the policy exists because with at-home assignments it’s more difficult to monitor cheating and plagiarism. The program needs to ensure students meet the licensing requirements as set out by each law society. “We’ve got no way of verifying that it’s the actual person doing the assignment,” says Clarke. “And so all of the safeguards have been built up with that in mind.”

Cheating does happen, albeit rarely. “There’s a subcommittee who’s actually looking into this issue, and the preliminary findings are that the cheating is not widespread,” says Clarke. “Generally speaking, there will be a few cheaters in every class at every level, and, no matter what you do, they’re going to somehow try to beat the system.” But those few individuals result in the need for a strict policy for everyone.

Redel agrees the integrity policy has been a source of great concern for many students, and suggests they’re looking for ways to address the issue in Manitoba. “We’ve actually retained some consultants to make some recommendations on that, who have actually been speaking to the students. It’s something that we’re addressing, trying to clarify that issue, because we know it is a source of anxiety for them.”

An obvious element of stress with a program that overlaps the articling term is finding the time to stay on top of the work with your firm while also completing the assignments. “The CPLED program can be quite taxing at times. Time management is essential to completing the course on time,” says Bruce. He managed to stay on top of things by sticking to a strict schedule. “I used a rule of thumb when allocating time to my CPLED assignments. For every required page in an assignment, two hours of actual time was required.”

Bowers agrees time is an issue, but he says it’s still possible to get everything done. “The overlapping nature didn’t cause any problems per se; however, it did seriously limit my time, which sometimes affected the quality and quantity of the work, on both firm and CPLED assignments.”

Not everyone has been so lucky in managing their time effectively. Clarke reports that, in Alberta, there have been cases of students failing evaluations due to time constraints. “And so our observation has been, with fresh eyes coming in, that [for] most of the students who have failed these assignments or competency evaluations . . . it’s usually a factor of time management. It’s not a factor of them being incompetent.”

Of course, learning effective time management skills is a critical part of becoming a good lawyer. With multiple client files, tight deadlines, social obligations, and family lives to balance, figuring out how to budget your schedule at an early point in your career may come in handy. “There is a teaching point in there,” reminds Redel.
Clarke says bringing the focus back onto helping students become the best lawyers they can be, rather than simply passing the evaluations, will improve the situation. He does admit the workload can be strenuous, given the number of tasks. “I think the workload has to be decreased . . . from the 23 assignments . . . if we can somehow reduce that amount then we can focus more on helping the students become good lawyers.”

Educating firms is just as important in ensuring a successful program. Students need to be given adequate time to complete their assignments without being overburdened by articling duties. Firms spent years having students go through a traditional program, and they have had to adjust their policies to reflect the new way of doing things. Change within large organizations can be difficult, and it’s reasonable to expect a few hurdles as employers adapt.

Farbacher, in Saskatchewan, agrees there were some challenges for firms as the program got going. “During the first year of the program there was less understanding about how much dedicated time the students needed to work on their assignments.” That’s changing as time progresses, she says.

Colin Feasby, a partner with Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, says they do have some concerns about the burden being placed on students by the CPLED curriculum. “We’re not convinced that as much educational component is required,” says Feasby, “given the fact that our students receive fairly extensive in-house training and also because of the trend in recent years in law schools towards skills training.” He recently attended meetings in Calgary with the CPLED administration where possible changes were discussed, and says they are keeping an open mind when it comes to the program’s future.

It’s not perfect, but what program can be? The critical factor is CPLED administrators appear to be responding to the concerns. With proposals for new developments being prepared for the upcoming term, the fifth year of

students going through the CPLED program should witness some changes.

At this time, students are entering a new phase in their life, going through intense professional development, and are ready to break free from the education system. In light of that, the overarching theme of the criticism and feedback of this program is that, as part of that transitional phase, and as with all transitions, there will be challenges along the way.

Bruce, who recently completed the program, describes the relationship as parent-child-like, something he hopes can be avoided in the future. “I would have much preferred a relationship that mirrored a colleague-to-colleague relationship, whereby each party understands its duties and works hard to ensure that the requirements are dutifully, fairly, and honestly completed.”

Clarke in Alberta leaves us with a few words of dedication and enthusiasm towards the future: “I have to change a lot of things here. But I like this challenge. I did my homework before I took the job and realized this is the sort of issue that I was going to have to do.”