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Dean Holds Town Hall Meeting on New Bar Exam

On January 27, Dean of Law Dr Paul Paton held an open meeting with law students to address the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC)’s plan for a new national bar exam. Jim Eamon, outgoing president of the Law Society of Alberta, explained the rationale behind the proposal, while both Paton and Dharam Dhillon, president of the Law Students’ Association (LSA), expressed reservations about it.

In 2014, Paton committed to holding town hall meetings every semester in order to consult regularly with students. He provided some updates on Law Faculty achievements, including hiring of new professors and staff. In the search for new professors, 43 men and 19 women applied for full­time faculty positions, five men and five women were shortlisted and three of these will be hired. Paton wants to hire nine new faculty over the next three years, and has also secured funding for two two­year visiting assistant professorships. Of these, at least one will be a specialist in Aboriginal legal issues. Additionally, the Law Faculty hired Komal Kumar as student life coordinator, a position which includes liaising with student groups. Additionally, the Law Faculty is now hiring a director of communications and is considering hiring a recruitment and financial aid officer.

The Dean also addressed the increasing difficulty of finding articling positions due to the economic downturn in Alberta and Western Canada. Outside the law school, Paton has been rebuilding alumni advisory boards in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, which he pointed to as a resource for students seeking articles. He noted that U of A is well ahead of the national articling rate and suggested that composite articles can help provide a solution for graduates seeking work – that is, articling for several sole practitioners none of whom could afford to employ a student for a full year.

Addressing the controversial issue of the national bar exams which the FLSC wants to institute across Canada, Paton said that he had concerns about the process which the deans of other Canadian law schools share, and the law deans had written a joint letter to the FLSC expressing their concerns.

Dhillon said that the LSA received the FLSC’s proposal in November and provided the results of the LSA’s survey asking students their opinion on the national bar exams. With a high response rate, 94% said that the national assessment regime worried them and 96% said the Law Society of Alberta should not participate in it. 90% said they were satisfied with the existing CPLED system of progressive tests.

Finally, Eamon explained the rationale for a national assessment to be adopted in place of existing provincial bar exams and tests. He noted that law societies in each province will be allowed to opt out of the national system if they choose. However, he characterized the Law Society of Alberta as a “big supporter of the Federation.”

Eamon explained that interprovincial legal practice has expanded greatly over the past thirty years, in part due to constitutional challenges under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. When national law firms emerged in the 1980s, the Law Society banned them, but this rule was overturned by court challenges. As Eamon recalled, the law profession was once very compartmentalized, with lawyers working only in one province their entire lives. If lawyers wanted to practice in another province they had to write transfer exams. Moreover, even to make a temporary appearance in one matter in another province, a lawyer would have to apply for a certificate from the law society which was a long process, and would have to go through a perfunctory bar admission ceremony before a judge.

Eventually, local exams were eliminated and lawyers who were qualified to practice in one province were considered qualified to practice in another after filing transfer papers with the law society in the new province. Eamon noted that interprovincial mobility was one of the most important achievements of Canadian law societies, and that many lawyers now move between provinces during their careers. Additionally, a number of lawyers now practice in two or more provinces simultaneously.

Since mobility was achieved, law societies have been working on harmonizing bar admission and disciplinary practices. In 2009, law societies began to discuss assessing competency for entry-­level lawyers at the national level. The FLSC needed a number of provincial law societies to be interested in the idea in order to develop a national proposal, and when this was achieved the bar admission process was created in November 2015. Eamon stated that law societies in several provinces, including Alberta, want national bar exams (Quebec’s two law societies have opted out).

The new national proposal includes a seven hour multiple choice exam and a five hour written exam, which would replace the existing smaller study modules and tests of the CPLED process used in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. While the exam would be created nationally, the answers would be scored locally to ensure they reflected the state of the law in the province where the exam was taken. Eamon said that while he is aware that the LSA objects to national bar exams, he is not sure why, and the Law Society of Alberta will try to address any flaws in the new system.

Unfortunately, even though the town hall meeting was held for the purpose of consulting students, there were only five minutes left for questions at the end of the meeting. Thus, not much of consultation was actually able to take place.