If you think that all newly admitted Canadian lawyers had a comparable legal education or legal qualifications, you are in for a surprise.
Over the past decade or so, the landscape of new lawyers, at least in Ontario, has dramatically changed. Today, based on at least anecdotal evidence, a sizeable portion of new lawyers obtain their law degrees from a foreign university with far lower admission and graduation academic standards than those required by Canadian universities.
Canadian students who do not get accepted to a law school in a Canadian university have an easier path for acceptance to a foreign university with significantly lower academic entrance and graduation standards. Upon graduation, they can return to Canada and qualify for admission to practice law in one of the Canadian provinces.
In my respectful opinion, the low re-qualification standards for foreign-educated Canadian law students are not in the public interest.
Getting admission to a law school in one of the Canadian provinces in not easy. I think it is safe to say that, generally, in order to be admitted to a Canadian law school, a student needs to have strong academic credentials (indeed, excellent credentials in many law schools) and probably at least an acceptable performance on the difficult Law School Admission Test (called "LSAT"), which is a standardized test required for admission to all qualifying law schools in North America.
I graduated with an LL.B. (a bachelor of laws) from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto almost 20 years ago, in 1996. In those days, I believe that the vast majority of newly admitted lawyers (at least in Ontario) graduated with a similar LL.B. from a Canadian law school, i.e., not from a foreign law school.
These days, many Canadian law schools have changed the name of their law degree from an LL.B. to a J.D., which stands for Juris Doctor, to be more in line with how qualifying U.S. law schools call those degrees, and to signify that these degrees are typically graduate-level where students already have an undergraduate degree before entering law school.
This past Saturday, while reading the weekend edition of the Globe and Mail, I came across a large three quarter page advertisement for an LLB program that the University of Surrey in the U.K. offers to Canadian students. The link that the advertisement provides states: "At the University of Surrey, our law programs are designed to cater to the needs of Canadian students."
This program, and likely many others like it, aims at Canadians who seek admission to that program (presumably attractive for at least those who are otherwise unable to gain admission to a Canadian law school), and return to Canada where those students can go through a requalification process to obtain a licence to practice law.
The University of Surrey claims on its website to be one of the top universities in the U.K. for student satisfaction and employability. I have no reason to doubt it and that is admirable. However, I was astonished at the low levels for admission to such a program and subsequent Canadian requalification standards:
- Students are not required to write the LSAT to seek admission to this law program. I suppose this means that reading and analytical comprehension based on standardized North American levels matter not.
- Academic performance from high school or university in the range of only B Minus, or between 75 per cent to 70 per cent, is required to seek admission to this law program.
- Upon returning to Canada with their U.K. LLB, students have to apply to the National Accreditation Committee (NCA), which includes writing a number of exams. To qualify, students are required to graduate from the LLB program in the U.K. with only a 50 per cent overall average grade!
- Similarly, students who complete a two-year LLB program are required to write seven NCA exams in Canada upon their return to Canada. The required passing average grade of these NCA exams is also 50 per cent. And students are not require to complete exams in those courses as long as they pass those modules with at least a 50 per cent grade.
These dismal academic standards that the NCA sets for re-qualification by foreign law students (many of whom appear to be Canadians) is likely related to what I have observed to be the increasingly low competency level of a growing number of new lawyers. This is a real concern. Some new lawyers do not appear to possess the necessary understanding of applicable law and the prevailing legal standards of practice and procedure in various common areas of practice.
The issue is not necessarily with foreign law school admission and graduation standards, but Canadian standards for admission to the legal profession -- what is required to qualify as a lawyer in a Canadian province.
The admission requirements to the legal profession in Ontario, and likely in other Canadian provinces, should be substantially raised, including the re-qualification standards of foreign law degrees and provincial bar exams.
Whether as a result of different criteria of legal education outside of Canada, the lack of adequate articling, training and mentorship, bar entrance standards, or a combination of some or all of these factors, a seemingly growing number of newly admitted lawyers do not appear to have the requisite knowledge, understanding and skills to competently handle some files. And many do not have the necessary supervision by experienced lawyers.
Competence is an important factor to maintain the public's confidence in the legal profession.
Overall entrance standards may have been relaxed in a good-intentioned attempt to enhance access to justice to various communities. I seriously question if there are legitimate compelling arguments about increasing diversity in the legal profession in Ontario in this context given that these foreign programs target Canadians -- not foreigners.
Rather than improving access to legal services across Ontario with an increase in the number of new entrants, access to quality legal services may have been significantly eroded. This seems to affect various practice areas in Ontario, as well as various communities.
The concerns about competency levels of some newly admitted lawyers also increases the cost for lawyers to resolve cases, whether transactional or litigation. Attempts to process a file in an efficient manner are hampered when faced with a newly minted lawyer on the other side of a file who lacks the requisite knowledge. This ends up driving the costs of processing a file, i.e, clients' cost of legal work.
We need to have a better understanding of different criteria of law school education outside of Canada, how the lack of adequate articling and training affects the required skills of new entrants, and how bar examinations entrance standards should be changed accordingly.
Ultimately, the entrance standards to the legal profession (at least in Ontario) need to be significantly raised. Doing so is in the best interests of the Ontario public, and more broadly, Canadians. The public and the administration of justice will benefit from higher entrance standards for newly admitted lawyers.
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