Make Professional Awareness a Critical Component of Lawyer Licensing

Last year, I submitted a report to the Law Society of British Columbia concerning the lawyer development and licensing system in that province. The report made only one recommendation — that BC create and adopt an entry-level lawyer competence framework as the basis for a new licensure system — which the law society’s Benchers accepted.

But my report also included a range of what I called “suggestions” — actions that I thought were worthwhile and beneficial, but that didn’t rise to the level of full “recommendations” that the Benchers would have to approve or reject. My goal was to encourage legal regulators, in BC and across the country, to think differently about how we develop and license lawyers, something we very badly need.

Probably the suggestion that I think was most worthwhile, and which I’d love to see a law society (or state bar) take up, is to supplement the current teaching and assessment of “professional responsibility” with the additional teaching and discussion of what I think is also really important for new lawyers to possess: professional awareness.

We all know what we mean by “professional responsibility”: adherence to codes of ethics and the general conduct of one’s affairs in a respectful and professional manner. But by “professional awareness,” I mean all those issues that experienced lawyers know to be part of the everyday reality of life in the legal sector, but that new lawyers are largely uninformed about until they enter the Bar and are unprepared to deal with.

Here are four topics that don’t appear to be on the mandatory curriculum of law schools or the programming of bar admissions courses, yet are real problems and concerns in the real world that have a significant negative impact on lawyers, clients, and the public:

  1. The Access to Justice Failure: Upwards of 80% of the population does not engage with the civil justice system, either because they can’t afford to hire a lawyer or because they don’t even know that the problem they’re facing has a legal remedy. This is trite knowledge to you and me, but it’s news to a lot of Day One lawyers.
  2. The Self-Representation Reality: In superior and especially provincial and territorial courts, most litigants represent themselves. Even in transactional matters, people often feel obliged to make their own way through the legal system. Law students mistakenly expect that they’ll be dealing exclusively with other lawyers.
  3. The Systemic Discrimination Scandal. The justice system — primarily criminal, but also civil — systematically discriminates against individuals from racialized communities and particularly against Indigenous people. It’s built in to the system’s assumptions and protocols. New lawyers need to know this and how to counter it.
  4. The Lawyer Wellness Crisis: Here in Canada, 59% of legal professionals report psychological distress, 56% report burnout, and 24% say they’ve experienced suicidal thoughts at least once since starting practice. It’s regulatory malpractice not to warn new lawyers about the maelstrom they’re heading into.

New lawyers need an understanding of and the ability to competently navigate the rapidly changing landscape of the modern legal sector. They should at least be made aware that these issues and problems exist and will likely pose challenges to them throughout the early parts their careers. But currently, new lawyers receive little advance notice of, and no preparation for dealing with, these subjects from their professional regulator.

So my suggestion is that, in addition to teaching professional responsibility, law societies also teach “professional awareness” about these and other emerging, important, and systemic professional issues during the bar admission process. This

could be an entirely self-guided online offering, mandatory to complete but not subject to testing. It would give clarity and depth to the lawyer licensing process without rising to the level of a “competence” required for licensure.

And you know what? It wouldn’t need to be restricted just to bar admissions. Experienced lawyers could be encouraged to access this program as part of their continuing professional development requirements. The information supplied would provide insights for lawyers at every stage of their careers.

Let’s not just teach licensure candidates the essentials of legal practice. Let’s also teach them what the real world of lawyering actually looks like — and encourage them to make it better.

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