More than showing up: Making the most of PD

  • October 20, 2016
  • Carolynne Burkholder-James

Continuing professional development is not just a requirement, but an “intellectual refresher that all lawyers need,” according to Sheila Osborne-Brown.

As the volunteer chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s Professional Development Committee, Osborne-Brown oversees course proposals from national CBA sections.

“Professional development courses are a way to stay up to date in your practice area,” says Osborne-Brown, an Ottawa-based lawyer with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. “It’s a necessity to maintain your skills and update your knowledge of current cases and new legislation.”

Bill Buholzer, a Vancouver-based partner at Young Anderson Barristers and Solicitors, says that young lawyers must continue to learn and develop their skills after law school.

“The earlier a young lawyer acknowledges that law school and the bar admission course were only the beginning of their legal education, the better it is, both for the lawyer and ultimately for their clients,” he says.

Karen Bell, Senior Director, Professional & Client Education, at McCarthy Tetrault LLP in Toronto, agrees, emphasizing the concept of “life-long learning.”

“You need to learn different skills at different stages of your career to be effective,” she says. “Under the rules in every jurisdiction, lawyers have a duty to be competent and competence is not a static thing. It’s not just a ‘nice to have’ – it’s a duty.”

Robin Junger, partner at McMillan LLP in Vancouver, has been involved in professional development as a participant, instructor and facilitator throughout his career.

“Too often people view continuing legal education as something that they have to do. But that’s an impoverished way of looking at it,” says Junger, the national co-chair of the Aboriginal and environmental law groups at McMillan LLP.

Junger has taught professional development courses on administrative law, Aboriginal law and environmental law.

“I’ve been involved in CLE from the day I graduated. I found it to be a tremendous opportunity,” he says.

As well as providing substantive knowledge, Junger says professional development courses can also help young lawyers in other ways.

“It’s also about getting exposure to what other lawyers are doing and how different lawyers see issues and the files that they’re working on,” he says.

He credits an administrative law course on how to do a judicial review that he attended early in his career for helping to build his confidence.

“It was right down to the basics and I thought that was just great,” he says. “It really empowered me. I thought, ‘I can do this now.’”

Osborne-Brown notes that professional development courses provide good networking opportunities.

“It can be a good way of getting referrals from a colleague. For example, if they have a conflict on a file they may refer the file to you. As well, it’s good to get together with lawyers in your practice area to talk about recent developments and recent cases,” she says.

They offer potential for marketing as well, says Junger.

“The most effective form of marketing is having a solid and respected reputation,” he says.

It’s important for young lawyers to take responsibility for their own professional development, says Bell.

“Everyone could have the excuse that they’re too busy,” she says. “But you need to develop yourself so you’re ready and equipped to do the work. It’s about understanding and self-awareness. What are you good at? What do you need to work on?”

Both Junger and Buholzer recommend that young lawyers also think about volunteering to present at a professional development course.

Buholzer, an expert on local government and municipal law, says he began instructing professional development courses just three years after he was called to the bar.

“There will always be a need for fresh presenters, and you’ll likely be surprised at how early in your career an opportunity will come up for you to get on the other side of the microphone,” says Buholzer. “Contact your local CPD providers yourself when you feel you’re ready – actually, when you feel you’re almost ready; they’ll probably nudge you over the line.”

“Don’t be hesitant to propose course themes and topics; it’s practitioners who are in the best position to know what’s current,” he adds.

Junger agrees, recommending that new presenters pick an area that is specific and targeted.

“You don’t have to be 20 years at the bar,” he says. “Do some research, get a bit of guidance and everyone will learn.”

Making the most out of professional development means doing more than merely showing up. Here are some tips:

  • Participate in the courses, recommends Junger. Read your materials and ask questions.
  • Go in person when you can. “You cannot network with other practitioners in an online course,” says Buholzer. “Attending CPD events is a great way for you to establish contact with practitioners in your area of law.”
  • Take advantage of webcasts. “If time is tight and you want to get a quick update on a particular area of law or a particular case, you can tune in for 90 minutes directly from your desktop,” says Osborne-Brown. Or you can play it back later, when it’s more convenient for you.
  • Pay attention to price. The cost-effectiveness of webcasts is also appealing for many young lawyers, says Osborne-Brown.  “One of the reasons that webcasts are so popular is that they are inexpensive so you can cover more content for less expense,” she adds.
  • Go early, go often. “Establishing a professional commitment to taking CPD seriously is probably easier for lawyers who are in the early stages of their careers than for senior lawyers who have many more demands on their time,” says Buholzer. “Law societies are not going to be dialing back their CPD requirements; if anything they’re likely to double down on CPD as public expectations of self-regulating professions grow. So it’s a good idea to embed a commitment to CPD in the early years of one’s practice.”
  • Use them for research. Thinking of switching specialties? For lawyers thinking of changing their practice area, a professional development course is a “fairly painless way” to get an introduction, says Osborne-Brown. “Hearing from three or four experts in the field might give you an indication as to whether you really are interested in making a change in your practice or whether that area of practice is not for you,” she says.

Carolynne Burkholder-James is an associate at Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP in Prince George.