Reimagining articling and promoting equity at the start of a legal career

  • April 07, 2020
  • Angela Simmonds and Morgan Manzer

With the new crop of students beginning their articles in June 2020, comes a new program to teach and assess their competencies. The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society will be rolling out a new skills course along with three other provincial law societies. The program is called the Practice Readiness Education Program, and it was developed by the Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education, in consultation with the NSBS and the other law societies adopting the program.

The move to PREP provides the NSBS with a unique opportunity to fundamentally reimagine how articling education is approached. It also means the NSBS will no longer be offering a bar exam.

The current exam has worked well in past years, but we are now in an era where all Canadian law schools have an accredited curriculum, and there are national admission standards that set out the knowledge, skills, and attributes Canadian law students need to become lawyers.

In short: substantive law is learned in law school. There is no longer a compelling reason to test it again at the bar admission stage. Rather, it is more effective and reasonable to test substantive law in the context of handling a legal file from beginning to end, which is what happens in PREP.

Articled clerks will be tested in their knowledge of the law throughout the program as they work on simulated client files. The course focuses on what regulators know are the problems lawyers have in practice, which usually centre around practice management issues. To that end, PREP concentrates on topics like client management, file management, trust accounts, and wellness; and the lawyering skills of research, writing, drafting, interviewing, negotiation, and advocacy.

One of the competencies the NSBS has prioritized is ensuring all lawyers acquire and hone cultural competency. Building the commitment of every lawyer to become culturally competent starts during the articling year, and continues throughout a lawyer’s career. Cultural competency exists on a continuum, and it requires a pledge to continuous learning.

That is why the NSBS has been working to embed an equity lens to all aspects of its work. In December 2019, the NSBS released an Equity Lens Toolkit to help its staff and all lawyers across the province achieve more cultural awareness and to ultimately develop and deliver programs and services that are responsive in addressing systemic barriers and inequities for people from equity-seeking groups.

Cultural competence is the ability to interact effectively with persons of different cultures. Cultural competence requires the lawyer to have four essential capacities:

  • first, the lawyer must understand their cultural positions and how they are similar to, or differ from, the cultural positions of another.
  • second, the lawyer must understand the social and cultural reality they live and work in.
  • third, a lawyer must cultivate appropriate attitudes towards cultural differences.
  • fourth, a lawyer must be able to interpret a wide variety of verbal and non-verbal responses. This can be tough emotional labour because it requires a lawyer to challenge some of the beliefs they have been taught throughout their life and relearn new ones.

As part of the in-person components of PREP, the NSBS will continue to facilitate a full-day cultural competency workshop that focuses on the Nova Scotia context. Specifically, it will address the injustices against African Nova Scotians and the Mi’kmaq from our history of colonialism, enslavement, and segregation, all of which were legal at one time in Nova Scotia.

PREP emphasizes experiential learning to better equip articled clerks as they transition into practice. PREP includes 14 online modules and two in-person components. In developing PREP there was consultation with folks from equity-seeking communities to give their input and feedback. One of the 14 online modules teaches articled clerks about Indigenous peoples and their contributions, cultures, and laws.

In 2014, the NSBS introduced Aboriginal law as part of its Bar exam. The PREP “Indigenous cultures and people” module builds on this.

All the modules were intentionally designed to include diversity elements that require an articled clerk to consider for a successful evaluation. In various components of the course, students will be confronted with clients with different cultural backgrounds and will have to determine how this affects the legal scenario and tailor their advice accordingly. They will have the opportunity to apply their cultural competence to various scenarios and receive feedback on how they managed the situation.

In a criminal law matter, for example, articled clerks will have to consider, among other things: the availability of a Gladue Court or Wellness Court that incorporates Indigenous restorative justice traditions and customs; an Indigenous person’s entitlement to have a Gladue Report prepared when seeking bail or at sentencing; and the potential need for translation services to ensure the client’s full understanding of the proceeding.

Another online module teaches articled clerks about the legal profession’s special ethical responsibilities, which includes a prohibition against harassment and discrimination.

Ensuring PREP is accessible to all was also top of mind in its development, particularly for those with disabilities. For instance, the online modules are adapted for persons with visual impairment to ensure they can easily access the required content and participate fully.

The introduction of PREP is an exciting opportunity for the NSBS to build on its equity groundwork of emphasizing the importance and need for cultural competency among the newest members of the legal profession in Nova Scotia.

Angela Simmonds is Equity & Access Manager and Morgan Manzer is Equity & Access Advisor at Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society.