Smooth sailing: How your law society can help you stay out of trouble

  • November 10, 2015
  • Carolynne Burkholder-James

Getting a call from the discipline branch of the law society is every new lawyer’s worst nightmare.

But according to Janet E. Minor, Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, legal regulators have many resources available to help new lawyers avoid this dreaded phone call.

“Don't think that the law society is just there to set the standards for admission and then forget we exist as long as you don't hear from us on a regulatory case,” she says. “We want to stay in touch. We want to assist lawyers. We're there to help. It's something we take really seriously.”

Access to information

Legal regulators from across Canada offer a wide variety of information and resources to ensure new lawyers have the tools they need to practise. These resources include substantive assistance on many areas of the law, such as wills and estates and civil litigation, and can also include practice management tips and even work-life balance advice.

Minor says the LSUC’s resources are available in hard copy, online and some even by way of podcasts, in order to ensure that members have access to the information they need.

“We want to help both lawyers and paralegals stay abreast of changes in the practice and ensure everyone maintains the high ethical standards that we require,” she says. “It's very much in the lawyer's interest, the Law Society's interest and particularly in the public's interest that lawyers maintain their standards and we want to do whatever we can to help.”

The Law Society of British Columbia offers resources on topics ranging from how to determine if a client has capacity, to incorporation precedents, to how to provide independent legal advice. British Columbia lawyers can access information online or via a series of webinars developed by the law society.

Similarly, the Law Society of Saskatchewan Library has created a series of tutorial videos to aid members with legal research, and library staff members are available to help with everything from noting up cases to tracing the history of a statute or regulation.

New lawyers in Newfoundland and Labrador are encouraged to access the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador Library to help find forms, precedents and unreported judgments. The library also emails new judgments daily to lawyers by request.

Professional development courses

Treasurer Minor recommends that all new lawyers seek out professional development opportunities.

“Mandatory or not, it's extremely important for lifelong learning,” she says. “That is part of what the profession is. You can't stop once you've passed the bar exam and started practising.”

Some legal regulators, such as the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Law Society of Prince Edward Island, have developed their own continuing legal education. CLE is also available from the Canadian Bar Associationnational offices and branches.

“We recommend lawyers canvas the array of development courses from the various associations and organizations,” says Minor. “We urge people to do more than is required.”

Mentorship and assistance

One of Minor’s first pieces of advice to new lawyers is to reach out to others.

“Don't be afraid to ask for help,” she says. “Ask people you respect in the profession. If you don't know anyone, get in touch with an organization and ask for some advice or reference in your area.”

Minor also recommends that new lawyers develop mentors.

“Don't stop with one, get two,” she says. “I think that, in my experience, experienced lawyers regard it as a responsibility to assist more junior ones. It's very important to them.”

The Law Society of Upper Canada offers a number of mentorship programs – one that matches lawyers seeking help on a specific area of the law with experienced practitioners; one that assists new and aspiring lawyers from equity-seeking groups; and another that assists articling students.

Similarly, the Law Society of British Columbia’s Aboriginal Lawyers Mentorship Program is aimed at increasing retention of aboriginal lawyers.

Several other law societies also offer practice advisors who are able to assist new lawyers with legal, ethical and practice concerns. Practice advisors with the Law Society of Alberta will travel anywhere in the province to meet with lawyers. The service is free and confidential. 

Manitoba lawyers are encouraged to call Barney Christianson, a past president of CBA-Manitoba, who has been hired by the law society to provide practice management assistance.

Minor says that mentors and advisers can provide more than just assistance with substantive legal questions.

“Mentors can help you work out a balance in your life and your practice,” she advises. “Stay connected, make connections and don't be afraid to ask for help – it's a positive not a weakness.”

Health and wellness

Programs such as the Law Society of Manitoba’s Lawyers Health and Wellness Program offer crisis intervention and counselling services for lawyers and their families. The free and confidential service aims to help lawyers dealing with stress, addictions, psychological disorders and financial and other issues.

Similar programs are available in British Columbia and New Brunswick where they are known as the Lawyers’ Assistance Program. In New Brunswick, new lawyers can access interactive tools and health and wellness assessments over the Internet.

In Ontario, the Member’s Assistance Program is aimed at lawyers, paralegals, law students and judges in Ontario, as well as their their families, Minor says. “We respect that the problems can affect more than just the person.”

CBA Wellness(formerly the Legal Profession Assistance Conference), also provides information and resources to members of the legal profession, including a new online course developed in partnership with Bell Let’s Talk and Mood Disorders Society of Canada titled Mental Health and Wellness in the Legal Profession, whose goal is to develop an awareness of the kind of mental health issues that can arise and offer resources to those who need more information.

“Often new lawyers feel that they're there to solve other people's problems and that's what they do. But then they find it difficult to ask for advice themselves. They don't feel comfortable admitting that they can't solve their own problems on a personal basis,” she says. “That's what these professionals are there to assist with – stress, family issues, professionalism, alcohol issues or mental health issues. “

Minor encourages new lawyers to reach out for assistance.

“People are concerned that somehow they are acknowledging weakness,” she says. “But that is exactly wrong. It takes strength to reach out.”

For more information about the programs available in your region contact:

Barreau du Québec: 1-800-361-8495

Law Society of Alberta: 1-800-661-9003

Law Society of British Columbia: 1-800-903-5300

Law Society of Manitoba: 204-942-5571

Law Society of New Brunswick: 506-458-8540

Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador: 709-722-4740

Law Society of Prince Edward Island: 902-566-1666

Law Society of Saskatchewan: 306-569-8242

Law Society of Upper Canada: 1-800-668-7380

Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society: 902-422-1491

Carolynne Burkholder-James is an associate with Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP in Prince George, B.C.

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