Why Lawyers Need Professional Development - the tale of Sidney Green (a student's perspective)
Lawyers possess a great amount of power and responsibility. With that power and responsibility comes the need to monitor and regulate the practice to ensure consistency of expectations and requirements of lawyers. Law societies play a role in the regulation of the legal profession to maintain standards of professional conduct. This is particularly important because the legal profession depends on society’s trust. Without trust, lawyers cannot effectively do their work of representing their clients’ interests. Lawyers are required to stay up to date with developments in the legal field in their everyday practice. In addition, there is a requirement for Canadian lawyers to complete a certain number of professional development hours by taking courses and training. In Manitoba, lawyers are required to maintain their professional development by completing twelve hours of continuing professional development activities per year.1 The requirement for professional development has not been received well by all practicing lawyers. Recently, Manitoba lawyer Sidney Green challenged this requirement, and went so far as to appear in front of the Supreme Court of Canada on this issue.2 He argued that since the Law Society of Manitoba is not an educational institution, its educational requirements were a “sham”.3 He did not take issue with professional development when it was voluntary.4 The Court decided against Mr. Green in a 5-2 decision.5 Due to his refusal to complete the training hours, his license to practice law will be suspended, and he plans on retiring.6 The Court was split over whether or not the professional development requirement was fairly imposed by the Law Society of Manitoba. The majority stated that The Legal Professional Act, which governs the Law Society of Manitoba, gives the society a broad mandate and that the professional development requirement falls within the mandate.7 They stated that the right to practice law is a statutory right that requires compliance with regulations.8 The automatic suspension aspect of the requirement was viewed as a means of ensuring compliance.9 The dissent stated that the law society did not exercise its mandate reasonably with the requirement.10 It stated that the law society’s role is to suspend licenses to practice law for serious violations that undermine the public’s trust in the profession, rather than to create a sense of distrust in lawyers who do not adhere to a minor breach.11 The dissent disagreed with the automatic suspension rule for not fulfilling the twelve hour requirement because it was viewed as unreasonable.12 In addition to the legal perspectives on the issue, there are public policy considerations as to the relevance of and need for lawyers to have professional development requirements. While lawyers are highly educated individuals, their schooling does not end when they graduate with their law degree. Like many professions, the legal profession requires lawyers to update their knowledge of the law. Considering that the law evolves daily as cases are constantly being tried and decided, lawyers should be aware of these changes.Twelve hours is not a lot of time to have to dedicate to professional development in an entire year, and could lead to obtaining valuable information that can be applied to better serve clients. Other benefits of professional development include increased networking within the profession, the opportunity to learn about technological changes in the field, and the chance to expand one’s knowledge in areas outside of the usual scope of practice. Technological perspective and know how are particularly relevant because artificial intelligence and the practice of maintaining files electronically are rapidly expanding. The continuing professional development of lawyers not only benefits clients, but the lawyers themselves. Many public policy considerations against the requirement are largely based on arguments of inconvenience to lawyers and false alarm bell ringing to the public. Lawyers may argue that they should not be forced to take courses that may not be effective, especially when they can gain valuable knowledge about changes in law by working on new and different cases. Although there is an increase in access to courses through online options, there seems to be a limited number of in-person courses that lawyers can take. In-person courses may have restrictive hours and dates, which is not helpful to lawyers with busy and constantly changing schedules. Additionally, courses are expensive, and can cost several hundreds of dollars for a low number of training hours. The training requirement comes with an additional cost on an annual basis. Lastly, as echoed in the dissent’s statements, suspending the licenses of lawyers who do not complete the professional development training sends a message to the public that they may not be trustworthy, which can be very career limiting. The idea of a lawyer having his or her license suspended is a very serious matter, and the difference between a suspension being due to lacking professional development hours versus a more serious matter, such as misappropriating client funds, is significant. It would not be beneficial for the public to negatively judge a lawyer’s license suspension as meaning that they lack integrity and professionalism due to not completing professional development requirements. While lawyers, such as Mr. Green, may wholeheartedly disagree with the professional development requirement, the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision is binding across the country. The requirement is rooted in logic, public policy, and most importantly, the law. In my opinion, the Supreme Court of Canada made the right decision.