Better lawyer training means better lawyers

Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education plans to roll out new Practice Readiness Education Program, says Gary Goodwin

Gary Goodwin

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Ah, changes are taking the pace I'm going through
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange …

—David Bowie

When does a venerable tradition simply become anachronistic? Possibly, when the tradition no longer fulfills its intended purpose and relies upon inertia. Perhaps.

Why tamper with a venerable tradition? Perhaps somewhere a parent used the venerable tradition of throwing their child off the dock to encourage them to swim, but this has not been documented. In any event, this approach does not always provide the required outcome.

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Change is on the horizon. The Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education (CPLED) provides the training needed for new graduates to become ready for the practice of law, and it intends to roll out a new bar admission program: the Practice Readiness Education Program, or PREP.

The basis for any policy change should be a problem that needs resolving. The 2019 Articling Survey Results Report conducted for the Law Society of Alberta found a number of disconcerting issues. These included an inconsistency in competencies and level of preparedness for entry-level practices. Over half of the new lawyers surveyed lacked confidence and felt not very prepared or only somewhat prepared. Only one third said a learning plan was used.

An even more troubling figure showed that 32 per cent of articling students experienced discrimination or harassment during recruitment or articling, most of that based on sex, race or ethnicity. This suggests that practised lawyers could benefit from some sensitivity training.

Quality of mentorship and feedback is a challenge for principals/mentors and students alike. Principals and mentors suggest a lack of time, resources and training as key challenges in mentoring articling students; it seems that someone is tossing the student and the mentor off the dock simultaneously and hoping for the best.

One factor that may be missing from the Law Society of Alberta’s assessment is the overall output. The lawyer may appear satisfied that the student has the necessary competencies, but does the client receive the necessary outcome? An additional survey should be conducted to determine if the client is receiving the full value proposition (benefits relative to the costs) being promised by the newly fledged lawyer.

Getting back to the dock analogy, instead of simply hoping for the best, CPLED developed the PREP. The intent is to deliver practical skills and competencies using an integrated approach. This approach combines interactive, transactional learning within four phases, allowing students the opportunity to interact with lawyers, instructors and simulated clients to improve competencies.

The competencies of a well-rounded lawyer fall into three broad groups. The first group is lawyer skills; this involves communication skills, taking legal concepts and ideas and clearly explaining them while taking into account the audience. If you are not changing your writing style based on who is doing the reading, then you are doing a disservice to the reader. The second aspect of this involves legal matter management: taking a case from interview to resolution by researching, gathering facts, planning a strategy and advising your client. Researching, for example, does not provide the broad spectrum of experience necessary.

The second broad component includes how a lawyer practises and self-manages. This involves sections on risk management, trust accounting, technology skills, and management for conflicts, relationships, and self — all good things that can have much broader application. My rotation in project management taught me the importance of listening. In my personal life, this improved my spousal relations and reduced conflicts. Although this coursework will likely deal with legal conflicts, everything can have a broader application.

The third section deals with professional ethics and character by examining who a lawyer is and how he or she behaves. This includes, of course, the code of conduct, ethical decision-making, and understanding fiduciary duties. The other competencies include the need to be honest, trustworthy, honourable and courteous. (These last ones may be a bit tough to achieve unless it’s your mother who’s grading you.)

Although behavioural modification can be difficult, the process that CPLED laid out makes these modifications seem easy. Twelve online modules combine self-directed study and interactive assessments. The multimedia approach, in the comfort of sitting in front of your own computer screen, lays the foundation for the various competencies.

Of course, workshops then provide a bit more real-world experience. Think Disneyland with the various safety protocols in place. The workshops allow students to interact with one another. This includes role-playing, simulations and practice management. (OK, maybe not quite like Disneyland.)

This begins to congeal in PREP’s virtual law firm. Here, the student gets to manage the full lifecycle of cases in various areas. I am not sure if bonus points will be awarded for the most innovative law firm name, but let us hope some points are set aside for this category. This can be a popular approach for MBA students who gather in a virtual company to implement a business plan. The chat functions can be of enormous help in discussing this plan. Just keep in mind that what you think might be a humorous comment in an email or chat can come across as flat and critical. Ensure you attach the appropriate uplifting emoji.

PREP’s capstone is the final assessment, in which the student is provided the opportunity to demonstrate his or her skills and competencies in a simulated transaction through the full life cycle of a case. I am not sure if the simulated transaction includes immediate payment after presentation of the account. But I digress.

The bar admissions PREP program appears to be in good company. Some university faculties of medicine have been using competency-based learning for years now, and the results have been very positive. We can anticipate that lawyers coming on stream with this new approach will be more prepared for the practice of law.

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