New law practice program prepares for take off

New law practice program prepares for take off
Chris Bentley says Ryerson has paid and unpaid placements ready to go but more are still needed.
With the law practice program’s French and English sections ramping up for Sept. 2 and Aug. 25 launches, respectively, there is a common vibe from those at the helm of the innovative program: optimism.

With placements being secured, help and guidance from the profession being offered, and enthusiastic law students ready for the new challenge, what’s not to be optimistic about?

“We all agree there’s a lot of enthusiasm for this approach,” says Chris Bentley, executive director of the English LPP at Ryerson University. “In many ways it’s something many in the bar have been asking or suggesting for some period of time and so we’ve had a lot of enthusiastic assistance and we will continue to receive that as we roll out the training portion.”

While he acknowledges within the profession of 43,000 practitioners there are detractors, he is keeping his attention on the positive — and the necessary.

“We’re trying to take the preparation of lawyers into the future. We’re trying to prepare lawyers for the future and that requires taking the best of the past and adding to it the preparation necessary for a profession that is evolving,” says Bentley.

“Means of delivery of legal information that are evolving, forms of practice that are evolving, and a society that’s changing by the second — the pace of change is accelerating. Part of Ryerson’s approach is they will get the best possible skills training but will also be encouraged to be entrepreneurial and innovative in their approach because those requirements are at the heart of success for the future. We want to prepare these candidates for success.”

So far, there are 260 students registered for the LPP on the English side and 21 for the French.

Anne Levesque, director of the French program at the University of Ottawa, says the number is about what they expected.

For Bentley, he says the number is still settling, some days a few more than 260, some days a few less. Though he did not have any expectations as to the number of students they’d be getting, he thinks 260 for the first year of a program in any discipline bodes well.

The directors of the LPP have tried to be diverse in the firms and organizations brought in to mentor, give guidance on curriculum, and supply placements.

Gina Alexandris, director of the Ryerson LLP, says they ensured the program’s curriculum — including the mentors — weren’t all Toronto-based.

“We’ve gone across Ontario and the firms that are helping are across the province . . . and across the types of firms and organizations,” she says.

Bentley estimates about 100 organizations — in-house counsel, legal clinics, government offices, private practices across the province — have stepped up. RBC, St. Michael’s Hospital, Nissan Canada, and Infrastructure Ontario are among them.

“The support and information that has been provided both in terms of curriculum development . . . and the participation of mentors has been quite wide,” adds Alexandris.

Bentley says all are involved in the practice in some way, starting with a strategic alliance with the Ontario Bar Association that has been helpful in identifying people to participate.

As for the French program, Levesque says one of their first goals was to gather an advisory board consisting of judges and lawyers well known in the francophone community. They meet once a month, providing advice and guidance to Levesque regarding the program.

“They have been tremendously generous with their time and lending their expertise and guiding the program’s orientation,” she says.

They also have eight subject matter experts who will be developing and leading the modules in every area of law, with representation from Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, well-known francophone firm Caza Saikaley, area legal clinics, McBride Bond Christian LLP, a lawyer from small criminal and real estate firm Stewart Associates, Lafarge and Associates, Julie Audet law firm, and also The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

“What we’ve tried to do is when we were developing the program we asked practising lawyers who are experts in their area to tell us what every lawyer in their first five years of practice needs to know to be a successful lawyer in that field, and that’s what we’re teaching,” explains Leveque.

“In an articling position, the experience you get is at the whim of the needs of the clients and tasks given to you by senior lawyers. We can guarantee exposure to these core areas and to all the basic and essential practical skills.”

She says they have worked hard to establish good ties with the community and ensures the program meets the needs of the francophone community in particular.

The four-month work placements are also shaping up for the program. André Bacchus, assistant director in charge of placements for the Ryerson LPP, says they are still working on “getting ourselves there” and are currently just over the halfway mark.

Bacchus says the work-placement employers they have on-board come from all sectors – in-house, government, private practice, and the legal clinic environment. He says the organizations are not only located in the major centres but outside as well. They are hopeful one of the attractions to taking on a candidate is the shorter four-month period and the fact that, “based on the training components that we have in place,” the candidate can hit the ground running.

“[The candidates] can bring value to their practice but it’s also their opportunity to contribute back to the profession. We are looking forward to having more and more join us,” he says, noting many lawyers are stepping up and even saying they wish they’d had some of these opportunities when they were coming up in the legal profession.

For Levesque, one of the priorities of the French program is to increase the number of francophone lawyers in criminal law. She reached out to criminal law lawyers looking to increase their firms’ capacity in French, or places that already had the ability to provide legal services in French but wanted to expand, and “the response has been very good,” she says. She says they have confirmed a few placements with criminal law firms in Ottawa, which have been secured.

Levesque says the LPP has tremendous support from the clinics, and has set up placements with unions, the provincial government, and a few firms in Northern Ontario, mostly in Sudbury where they provide legal services in French.

“We’re very pleased with that,” she says.

Levesque is confident she will have paid placements for everyone, saying they are still waiting for a few confirmations.

According to Bentley, the English side is still trying to identify more paid placements throughout the province.

“It’s fair to say we have paid and unpaid at the moment,” he says.

He points out all the candidates need a placement to complete training and they are partners in the process — meaning students too can identify a placement, through networks they’re developing or opportunities they want to pursue. Bentley and his team would be vetting all options to ensure they meet the criteria of the program.

What about the law students? Do these pioneers of the LPP seem enthusiastic?

“We’ve been speaking to a lot of students enrolled and are really confident we’ve developed a robust training program with very well respected lawyers from the francophone community,” Levesque says. “No articling position offers the opportunity to work with the team we’ve put together of experts in eight areas of law.”

Bentley, who notes newly appointed Chief Justice of Ontario George Strathy will be speaking during launch week, says they have met the candidates by webinar so far and are looking forward to meeting them in person come the end of the month.

As for the skeptics, Bentley says the goal is to prepare candidates for a successful future and they feel their program addresses the new needs of the profession.

“We are convinced success in the future will require everything it’s needed in the past plus an innovative, entrepreneurial, creative approach — obviously tech savvy — and when you think of those qualities . . . those are some of the qualities Ryerson is well known for.”

Levesque agrees the future of law requires a solid mix of new, innovative approaches and tried-and-true skills.

“Our goal is to provide solid work experience to our candidates and for candidates who are looking to get an overview in practical skills in the core areas of law I think it’s hard to beat,” Levesque says.

“One of the defining characteristics of the future — for our profession and for society in general — is that we are always willing to take a look at what we’re doing and figure out how we can do it better, because everybody around us, everybody in the world, is trying to do the same thing,” Bentley says.

“So if you’re going to position Ontario as a leader in the future you need people who are prepared to take the best that we can do and figure out how to do it better. That is one of the central questions we are going to be asking every single one of these candidates and challenging them on, and that’s one of the characteristics of the program.”

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