Legal Education: What The Law Student Doesn’t Know

During my time (1973-1976) at the Faculty of Law, Common Law Section of the University of Ottawa, the Law Faculty prided itself in the fact that it produced graduates who were particularly competent to enter the practice of law. Then, as now, the Law Society of Upper Canada did not mandate that students take a full complement of courses deemed essential by the Law Society. Instead, the Law Society took the position that, for a law degree to be recognized by the Law Society, the particular law faculty had to only offer the essential courses. What made the University of Ottawa’s common law faculty particularly distinguished is that it required that a law student take all of the courses deemed essential by the Law Society of Upper Canada. The Faculty no longer has this requirement.

One might ask what is so earth-shattering about such a “must take what is deemed essential” policy. The public might be surprised to know that many of those entering the practice of law have not taken those courses deemed essential. There are many graduates today who know much about law and social policy, but not much about wills, real estate or tax.

From the perspective of academic freedom in universities, this situation is understandable. Universities generally take the position that, as communities of scholars, they are not and should not be beholden to any outside interest, professional or otherwise. The law degree is but an entry requirement to professional qualification. The Law Society ultimately determines who qualifies, through its own testing procedures.

It was nonetheless always open to the Law Society to require that anyone who wanted to write the qualification exams should have taken and passed, with minimum grade qualifications, all of the courses deemed essential by the Law Society. It has never done so, contrary to the accepted practices in other professions.

The other profession with which I am most familiar is accounting. To qualify as a Chartered Accountant, I was required to take and pass, with minimum grade requirements beyond a bare pass, all the courses deemed essential by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario. To qualify as a Certified Management Accountant, I had to go through the same process. The other major accounting designation in Ontario and in Canada, the Certified General Accountants, have similar qualification requirements.

Both the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario and the Society of Management Accountants of Ontario also carefully evaluate, on an ongoing basis, whether the course content in the various universities is and remains acceptable to be credited by the respective accounting body. For example, when I was studying for my M.B.A. (1978-1980 part-time, one 1981 term full-time) at the Rotman School of Management (as it then was not known), most of my accounting courses were recognized by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario, in part because they were closely modeled on corresponding undergraduate accounting courses, and also taught by many of the same professors. By contrast, when I was teaching in the M.B.A. program (1984-1987) at the Telfer School of Management (as it then was not known), the accounting courses were not recognized by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario, presumably because they were considered to be too general. An M.B.A. student at that time at the University of Ottawa would have to take a number of supplementary undergraduate courses, if he or she wished to enter into the professional qualification process of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario.

It’s also worth noting that in accounting, the professional examinations are ultimately administered by national bodies: the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants, the Society of Management Accountants of Canada and the Certified General Accountants of Canada. No such national qualification for lawyers, at least at present.

There was a time when people qualifying as lawyers in Ontario had to go through a formal Bar Admission Course process. This was basically a professional qualification school administered by the Law Society of Upper Canada. Multiple courses, involving in-class lectures, and qualification examinations that were significantly case-oriented. They were time-consuming to mark–I know, I was part of a group marking them in the mid-1980s–but in the end one obtained a reasonable impression as to whether a student had a passing understanding of the material.

These days, there is no similar Bar Admission Course. Students are taught online, and write multiple-choice qualification examinations. They also have an opportunity to rewrite these examinations on multiple occasions, which was not readily available in times past.

Whenever I teach commercial law, all examination questions are case-oriented. I have also administered multiple-choice examinations at the request of other instructors with whom I have taught. In my experience, there are too many nuances that are not captured in multiple-choice responses. Multiple choice examinations can be machine-marked; case-oriented examinations necessarily involve much more instructor personal time.

What does passing or failing a multiple-choice qualification examination in law tell the public in relation to the degree of assurance that it should place in such a graduate? Particularly when such graduate has in many cases not taken the full course complement deemed essential by the Law Society? In my view, those administering the qualification processes for lawyers in Ontario have much to learn from the qualification processes to become a professional accountant in the same province.

Right out of the gate, the public in Ontario would appear to have cause for much more confidence in professional accountants than in lawyers. I hope things are different in other provinces, states and countries. And if they aren’t, that doesn’t make them right.


About brucelarochelle
This entry was posted in Accountants - Professional, Accounting Education, Legal Education, Ottawa Reflections, Professional Education, Toronto Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

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