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Time for LSO to formalize its relationship with students | Morgan Watkins

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 @ 3:42 PM | By Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins %>
Morgan Watkins
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed Ontario’s legal profession in many ways — for law students, we have adjusted to new Law Society of Ontario (LSO) requirements related to work-from-home summer placements, shorter articling terms and the first online bar exams in Ontario’s history. Like all consequences of the pandemic, the changes have affected individual students differently depending on their family status, mental and physical health, financial and other circumstances. We have yet to appreciate how the shifting student experience will impact the profession in the next few years.

During this time, there has been another big shift: the increased collaboration between the LSO and the Law Students’ Society of Ontario (LSSO).

For the past three months the LSO has relied on consultation with students to address the impact of COVID-19 on law student recruitment, employment and licensing in Ontario. The whole experience, brought on by the current circumstances, has reinforced the importance of an institutional role for students at the LSO.

After the pandemic was declared, the LSSO collected feedback from hundreds of law students in the province about the impact of COVID-19 on students’ employment and ability to participate in the recruitment and licensing processes. The LSSO relayed students’ stories and ideas to the LSO during weekly meetings for most of March through May. The LSSO and LSO even worked together to prepare communications to students, with the LSO participating in LSSO-hosted webinars to answer students’ questions about the new recruitment and licensing rules.

The LSO’s approach to consultation during the pandemic created an organized structure for feedback and allowed students to feel their voices were being heard. This should matter to the LSO. The consultation has led to outcomes that I believe, on the whole, students view as positive, such as the more flexible, online delivery of the licensing exams this summer.

It should not take a pandemic for the LSO to formalize its relationship with Ontario law students. Collaboration with law students and articling students should be a part of the LSO’s decision-making process for all issues that might impact us — including certain issues that extend beyond recruitment and licensing that will impact us as future members of the profession.

Law students and the LSO

The student society presidents of Ontario’s seven law schools sit as members of the LSSO Council, which is the advocacy body that represents over 4,000 law students in the province.

As president of my law school’s student society, and as a member of the LSSO Council, it was troubling to learn that there are limited forums for Ontario law students to provide formal input at the LSO. The LSO has certainly communicated with the LSSO about discrete issues as they arise and the LSSO was invited to participate in the LSO’s Equity Advisory Group and Treasurer’s Liaison Group. But this kind of ad hoc relationship does not include law students as part of the regular dialogue on issues that impact the profession.

Decisions made by LSO benchers impact law students, articling students and our future careers. In addition to the student-focused portfolios such as recruitment rules, licensing requirements and licensing fees, students deliver legal services in clinics throughout law school and work for legal organizations in the summer and during articles. Students learn and are shaped by interactions with members of the profession and by the workplaces and other professional settings in which those interactions take place. We are subject to LSO rules about legal practice and professionalism and impacted by employment-related rules about harassment and discrimination.

The LSO’s Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group 2016 Final Report highlighted the connection between students and the regulation of the profession when it found that law students and articling students face discrimination that negatively affects their experiences in law school, recruitment, hiring, access to desirable work, mentoring and promotion. This is in addition to the LSO’s 2018 survey that revealed 21 per cent of responding articling students experienced discrimination and harassment in their jobs. It’s likely that summer students have similar experiences working in the same legal organizations during law school.

Articling students are another story. Articling, Law Practice Program (LPP) and National Committee of Accreditation (NCA) students have no representation as they do not have an association or union and they are not licensees — which means they cannot vote or run in LSO bencher elections. At the same time, articling students pay significant LSO-mandated fees and fall entirely within the LSO’s mandate during their articling terms. Articling students provide legal services to clients under the supervision of principals and both of these relationships are regulated by LSO rules.

Just like any other group, students want to see public decision-makers who understand their experiences. While I don’t doubt that LSO benchers think about students when making decisions, the majority of benchers are too many decades removed from our experiences to bring a current perspective to bear. Since many benchers were called, there have been significant changes to the licensing process, law school education, the demographic composition of law schools and the legal job market.

Students are concerned that benchers’ deliberations centre on the perspectives of employers and principals — such as employers’ views about appropriate workplace discrimination policies and whether principals will be able to provide articling positions at a minimum wage — and not on the experiences of law students and licensing candidates.

It is basic good governance that the people making decisions appreciate the experiences of the people that will be affected by them — and that the people affected feel confident that this is true.

A way forward

The recent dialogue between the LSO and law students, made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, has reinforced the importance of an institutional role for students at the LSO.

This is not the first time that Ontario law students have asked for a formal voice at the LSO. In 2018, the LSSO asked the LSO’s Governance Task Force to consider reserving a bencher position for a student at Convocation. The LSO’s Equity Advisory Group also asked the Task Force to reserve more elected positions for young calls (lawyers in the first 10 years of practice). Neither submission was adopted, or even addressed in the Task Force’s three Reports to Convocation between 2018 and 2019.

At the same time, the Governance Task Force’s November 2018 Report found that LSO governance would be enhanced by the appointment of non-licensees — which includes law students and articling students — to the standing committees of Convocation. That Task Force’s mandate was concerned with the composition of benchers, so the question of how to restructure Convocation committees was left for another day.

Committees are the right place for student participation. During the pandemic, student input collected by the LSSO made its way to the LSO’s Professional Development & Competence Committee (PD&C), the Convocation committee responsible for licensing. PD&C is the committee that recommended the move to online licensing exams and is in the process of deciding how to implement an articling student minimum wage. This is an appropriate committee for law students to have a seat.

In addition, if Ontario is going to keep articling as a licensing requirement, articling students should have a formal mechanism to raise their perspective at the body that regulates them. If they are not represented (i.e., do not have a seat at Convocation or on a Convocation committee), at the very least they should be able to vote in the bencher elections.

I offer these perspectives in the spirit of collaboration. Students and young lawyers are the future of the profession. Now more than ever, our institutions should want to listen to young people’s experiences and ideas. The COVID-19 pandemic has called on institutions to rethink their processes and build relationships with stakeholders and communities. It is important that we learn lessons from COVID-19 by carrying the relationships that we’ve built out of necessity forward.

Students and young lawyers are thinking critically about the profession that we have chosen and its role in a progressing world. We are compassionate, and we are supportive of one another, while being exceptionally driven to learn and achieve. A consistent voice is not very much to ask for a group with this much at stake and much to offer.

Morgan Watkins is the outgoing president of the University of Toronto Students’ Law Society and a member of the Law Students’ Society of Ontario Advisory Board.

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