Following in the footsteps of the Law Society of British Columbia, the Barreau du Québec is compelling all of its 23,000 practising lawyers to go back to school as of this month and complete no fewer than 30 hours of approved continuing legal education courses every two calendar years to remain in good standing.
The subject of debate over the past three years, the mandatory educational requirement is a “preventative” measure aimed at establishing, promoting and improving the standards of legal practice in the province to help ensure the protection of the public, according to a motion that was approved by the General Council of the Bar.
“I have 40 years of practice under my belt, and it is not a natural reflex for me to contemplate sitting behind a school desk,” admitted Gérald Tremblay, the Barreau’s batonnier. “But the more one thinks about it, the more realizes that things are changing so quickly that it seems to me to be absolutely normal that all lawyers should maintain and bolster their intellect as much as possible. And when I saw that other bars too demand continuing professional development, I embarked on the project with enthusiasm.”
Like similar requirements in England, Wales, Australia and 42 American states, the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) introduced a continuing professional development program in January. The LSBC now requires its 11,000 members to complete at least 12 hours of accredited educational activities per year, with no less than two of the hours pertaining to any combination of professional responsibility and ethics, client care and relations, and practice management. Nova Scotia is the other Canadian jurisdiction that has compulsory legal education requirements, but it is limited to lawyers engaging in land registration work.
“Law is an evolving discipline, and it is important that people stay up-to-date,” said Stuart Cobbett, the managing partner of the Montreal office at Stikeman Elliott. “But life being what it is, some people just don’t pay attention to it. Therefore it is a good idea for any self-regulatory body to establish certain minimum continuing education requirements.”
The Barreau already has a 22-page list of approved educational activities, which range from lectures to presentations to workshops delivered through a host of different vehicles, be it during conferences, seminars and so-called webinars or through the Internet. Some 30-odd presentations and workshops that will offered at the Barreau’s annual convention next month in Montreal has already been given the nod as approved educational activities. Lawyers attending the convention can fulfill up to nine credits or hours of their requirements, which is why it is widely expected that there will be increased attendance at the convention.
The Barreau, besides encouraging smaller firms and sole practitioners to band together in small groups to share costs and resources to cover the costs of accredited training, is also in the midst of negotiating with law firms agreements over accrediting in-house training. Stikeman Elliott LLP is a case in point. At least two training seminars, “Managing Your Staff in Tough Economic Times” and “The New Quebec Derivatives Act: Spotlight on the Issues,” it will be offering in the near future has been accredited by the Barreau.
“If the Barreau was the only provider of continuing legal education activities, it would have been an onerous project,” said Tremblay, adding that the Barreau has budgeting between $300,000 and $500,000 to launch the program. “This project is supposed to be self-supporting – we’ll see. But we want to encourage all organizations who provide continuing education to do even more. We want the net to be as wide as possible.”
While lauding the initiative, insisting that it is a lawyer’s obligation to the public to keep up-to-date, David Collier of Ogilvy Renault believes that the Barreau will have to demonstrate flexibility in the way it administers and manages the program for it to achieve wide acceptance.
“A lot will depend on the way the program will be administered, and the flexibility the Barreau shows in accrediting various activities,” said Collier, a partner with the Montreal law firm who practices in all areas of intellectual property law, with an emphasis on litigation. “With some flexibility and creativity, it shouldn’t be onerous.”
Unlike in B.C. where failure to meet the continuing education requirements can lead to suspension, the Barreau has taken it one step further – disbarment.
Law societies across the country are tacking different approaches to continuing legal education. Some like British Columbia and Quebec have made it mandatory as of this year, while Saskatchewan law society benchers have approved a plan to create a mandatory professional development program by January 2010. In Nova Scotia, compulsory legal education requirements is limited to lawyers engaging in land registration work. Last November, the Law Society of Alberta approved the implementation of a continuing professional development program. Central to the plan is the requirement of intentionality – lawyers must develop a continuing professional development plan, and report their efforts to the law society. Manitoba has similar requirements, expecting 12 hours annually or roughly two full day courses per year, which they must declare.