Proposed changes to Ontario licensing process, a student's perspective

This year, the Law Society of Ontario embarked on a series of consultations on its governance structure and lawyer licensing.

Heather Donkers

Big changes might be on the horizon for Ontario’s licensing process.

 

This year, the Law Society of Ontario embarked on a series of consultations on its governance structure and lawyer licensing.

 

As the president of the Law Students’ Society of Ontario and chairwoman of the student section executive of the Ontario Bar Association, I am often called upon to represent the interests of law students across the province.

 

Any changes to the licensing process will affect law students for what could be decades. Any changes to the governance structure of the LSO (namely, shrinking the size of Convocation, keeping “life” and “emeritus” benchers and allowing for lengthy terms) will affect any chance of having students — or younger bar members — represented on the board.

 

The LSSO and the OBA will be making written submissions on both topics, based on evidence collected from their own internal consultations. These are my concerns with the licensing process, from the perspective of a 3L law student who will soon be entering the profession.

 

The current licensing model

 

Currently, licensing candidates in Ontario are required to pass a barrister exam, a solicitor exam and complete either 10 months of articling or eight months of the Law Practice Program at Ryerson in order to be called to the bar.

 

Most students go the articling route, working in an accredited environment, usually a law firm or government office. Others attend the LPP, which features a four-month training course and a four-month work placement.

 

There are several problems with these options, including the shortage of available articling positions. While many students article at the firm with which they spent their 2L summer or get a job through the articling recruit, others are left scrambling throughout their final year of law school to secure employment. Students from minority communities are reported to disproportionately end up without an articling position. Of those articling positions that are available, many are unpaid or underpaid.

 

The LPP fills some of this gap, but there are issues with this program, too. For one, the cost of the program is covered by fees paid by all law students, with an increase of $2,300 per person from the licensing fees prior to the implementation of the LPP. While some law firms pay their students’ licensing fees, not all do. And up to 30 per cent of the LPP work placements are unpaid.

 

This exacerbates Ontario law students’ already exorbitant debt, with tuition costs rising each year, now nearing $30,000 and $40,000 per year at Toronto’s two law schools.

 

The proposed options

 

In response to some of these issues, the LSO has proposed four options for potential reforms to the licensing process.

 

Option one would retain the current model for licensing.

 

Option two would retain the current model with “enhancements,” including a requirement that candidates be paid at the statutory minimum wage. This option would also require candidates to pass the barrister and solicitor exams prior to the start of their transitional training and add a new skills examination.

 

Option three would also include both traditional examinations and the new skills examination but eliminate articling and the LPP. Licensees practising as sole practitioners or in a firm with fewer than six lawyers would be required to complete a new practice essentials course and would be subject to audit within their first few years of practice.

 

Option four would require all licensing candidates to complete the training course component of the LPP, without the work placement. Candidates would also be required to pass the traditional examinations and the new skills examination.

 

The right answer? Like many questions in law, there isn’t one

 

There are problems with each of the proposed options for licensing reform — increased costs to candidates, extending the time it takes to become licensed, potential redundancy of the exams and ensuring consistency in training. The problems (and the potential benefits) of each option will be articulated in the LSSO’s submissions and will soon be made public on the LSSO website, so I will not repeat them here. Whether we will see those submissions represented in the final product is what I am principally concerned about.

 

There may be no right answer, but at least ask the right questions — and to the right people

 

Despite that details of the licensing process most directly affect current and future law students, there are no students on the LSO committee that will review the written submissions. Nor did anyone on the committee become licensed in Ontario within the last 15 years, when most of the issues that gave rise to these consultations began to occur.

 

I place some faith in the committee to take seriously the concerns of law students, even if only because I continue showing up — both in person and in writing — to voice my concerns. The committee has also apparently conducted some limited focus groups involving students. But I retain some reservations about how the committee will reconcile the concerns of lawyers with the concerns of law students in arriving at a new licensing model.

 

For example, I often get pushback to my concerns about the cost of the different options. A shocking number of the lawyers with whom I have spoken about this issue place sole blame for student debt on the law schools. To be clear, while I believe that law schools carry the majority of responsibility for law-school debt, that does not mean the LSO cannot also freeze or lower costs for the licensing process.

 

Even more unnerving is the number of people who say that these costs ensure competency for entrance into the profession. This creates a situation whereby those who cannot afford law school nor go through the licensing process are denied access. I have yet to see any evidence to suggest that any one of the proposed options ensures competency better than the others. But this could be the subject of a whole other debate.

 

If we can make the licensing process less costly, more consistent among candidates and provide greater access to members of diverse groups, why wouldn’t we? I hope that, with our submissions, the committee will be able to do so.  

 

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