Training Lawyers Online: The Development and Launch of Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program

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Gina Alexandris

How do you develop and deliver consistent, effective lawyer licensing training to law graduates situated across a province (and perhaps a country), incorporating large numbers of lawyers, similarly situated across a province, in subject matter expert, mentor and assessor roles? This was exactly the challenge that Ryerson University undertook in 2014 when it was awarded a contract by the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) to develop and deliver the Law Practice Program (LPP), an eight month experiential training program for licensing candidates that includes four months of ‘online’ learning and four months of an in-person work placement. And … it had nine months to do so before its first cohort began.

In Ontario, and the rest of the common law provinces of Canada, law graduates are required to complete articles of clerkship for ten months (this varies by province). However, for various reasons, many graduates were finding it impossible to obtain articles as required, and the LSUC determined the need to create an additional pathway. Furthermore, the regulatory body was moving towards a competency-based system of qualification, and it directed the LPP to consider ways to develop and assess candidate skills in the areas of professionalism and ethics; research; analysis; oral and written communications; client management; and practice management.

Now in its third year, the LPP has provided nearly 700 licensing candidates the opportunity to develop and be assessed on these vital lawyering skills needed to complete their experiential training component and, as a result, provided an otherwise unavailable pathway to becoming licensed to practise law in Ontario. At the same time, the LPP has involved the participation of hundreds of practising lawyers across the province in the creation and delivery of the program, as subject matter experts, mentors and assessors. As well, over 400 new jobs were created in the first two years that were previously unavailable within the profession for law graduates, allowing them to successfully put their skills from the training component to work in the work placement.

Just how does the training component work?

From the get-go, the LPP made it clear that this is work, not school. Using the concept of Virtual Law Firms (‘VLFs’), the LPP designed a hybrid learning experience/environment by which candidates would develop the relevant lawyering skills required by the regulator through simulated files in the areas of Administrative Law; Business Law; Civil Litigation; Criminal Law; Family Law; Real Estate Law; and Wills & Estates Law (subject areas mandated by the LSUC).

First, all candidates each year are randomly divided into ‘firms’ of about four members, and each firm is paired with two different mentors, one for the first half of the training and the other for the second. Next, working closely with the University’s Digital Education Services (DES) at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, and using the university’s Learning Management System (Blackboard in year one; Brightspace by D2L thereafter) and google apps for education, the LPP created a simulated law firm intranet site. The VLF site supports a highly authentic simulation of a real-life workplace where messages and work assignments are issued and exchanged along with resources and precedents relevant to client files at hand. In addition to precedents and additional resources, the original content that populates the VLF site includes hundreds of pre-recorded video ‘meetings’ with Senior Partners and guides to the foundations and steps of each practice area. Candidates engage with one another through ‘water cooler’ discussion boards that help create a sense of community. Candidates practice proper management of digital client files through use of a google drive. The ‘Partner’s inbox’ is represented by a submissions area where candidates can submit their work online, for the mentor to receive, review and assess.

Through the D2L site, firms are sent messages from ‘Senior Partners’, ‘Associates’ and ‘Law Clerks’ in the various simulated practice files, and firms must respond to the required work assigned, either individually or as a firm. Sometimes firms receive client ‘telephone messages’ that must be answered immediately. Just as in real life, the messages and work is sent throughout the ‘business day’ of 8am to 6pm, and the candidates are expected to be available for work Monday to Friday during those times. And just like real life, sometimes work carries over outside these timelines. Part of the learning that occurs is managing competing priorities of multiple files and multiple clients. Collaboration and teamwork are also important developmental themes in the LPP, and each firm sets up google files to allow file sharing and collaboration on work activities. And speaking of clients, the LPP benefits from the tremendous program available at the university through its Interpersonal Skills Teaching Centre (ISTC), whereby actors are hired and trained to simulate clients in the majority of the LPP files. Candidates therefore have the opportunity to meet with clients for the first time in initial client meetings, and then carry on the relationship with further follow-up meetings as the files progress, including preparing clients for trial in the Civil and Criminal files.

To continue with the notion of a workplace environment and ensure accessibility for as many candidates as possible without having to be physically present (remembering that both candidates and mentors reside across the province and/or other provinces, or even countries), the LPP needed to find a way to engage all candidates and mentors remotely. It did so through webconferencing, specifically the Webex platform. Every Monday morning for four months, the LPP Executive and Senior Directors hold ‘managing partners’ meetings with all candidates, working through file issues of the week, taking questions and comments from the candidates in real time. Similarly, each firm meets weekly with their mentor, both to discuss file assessments and evaluations, but also for part of the firm meeting, to discuss and reflect on specific weekly themes of professionalism and practice management, taking the Rules of Professional Conduct and giving them true life. In between these weekly meetings, mentors receive all candidate and firm assignments (approximately 120 in a four month period, from client interview notes, to drafts of agreements or pleadings, to correspondence to clients and opposing counsel, to legal research memoranda) through Brightspace by D2L, the learning management platform, and also provide feedback and assessments online via rubrics, for immediate feedback to candidates. Firms webconference each other and meet with their ‘clients’ via webconference. In the third year, for example, there was approximately one client meeting per week per firm, mostly completed via webconference.

In addition to the webconference tool, the LPP has benefitted from partnerships with other legal tech service providers who have offered their platforms and services for use by candidates in the program. These include legal research (WestlawNext Canada and LexisNexis Quicklaw); practice management (Clio); online drafting of real estate agreements of purchase and sale (LawyerDoneDeal); online contract review and drafting (Clausehound); an online negotiation training module (Stitt Feld Handy Group); and the actual online registry system used by real estate practitioners in Ontario (Teraview). And in addition to the technologies used during the training component, the work placement process benefits from including relevant technologies that allow candidates the opportunity to engage in online practice work placement interviews (Kira Talent) and receive and submit work placement opportunities online (PlacePro).

Within three years, the LPP has created a multi-teamed approach among groups across Ryerson University, in partnership with external service providers and the Ontario Bar Association, working with hundreds of members of the profession each year, to develop and deliver to hundreds of licensing candidates training that effectively develops and assesses their key lawyering skills through simulated files. All this exceptionally prepares candidates to hit the ground running, both for their subsequent work placement, but also as they later embark on their legal careers.

Gina Alexandris is Senior Program Director, Law Practice Program, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canda (gina.alexandris@ryerson.ca; Twitter: GinaAlexandris)

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