Almost half-way through his mandate as treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, alumnus Paul B. Schabas, LLB 1984, partner at Blakes, talks to Nexus about transforming the LSUC—and the legal profession.

By Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photography by Jim Ryce

From the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of Nexus

Paul B. Schabas, LLB 1984Lucianna Ciccocioppo: What have been some of your top challenges to date, and what are you most proud of?

Paul Schabas: I think the top challenge is the reform of our licensing process, which includes a review of articling and the Law Practice Program, the articling alternative that's been running at Ryerson University and the University of Ottawa for the past few years. We were mandated to conduct a review of that program last fall, and we did. The initial recommendation was to abolish the LPP, on the basis that it wasn't sustainable, and was perceived as being a second-tier approach that not many people were taking.

We put that out to the profession. The profession came back and said you can't just abolish the LPP without having something else to replace it. There was a lot of praise for the program itself, which we understood. We listened to that, and we have now embarked on a thorough review of our licensing process. Everything is going to be on the table—the future of articling, the nature of the exams, and whether we should have an experiential course requirement, such as Ryerson’s.  

That's a big challenge for us. It's been an ongoing issue at the Law Society, I would say for the last 20 to 25 years, and certainly since the bar admission course was discontinued. It's time we really wrestled with the issue in a thorough way, to come up with an objectively defensible licensing process that properly reflects our need to act in the public interest.

As for the top accomplishment, I think that would be the racialized working group report's approval at Convocation (the meeting of LSUC Board) in December. We had a lengthy debate on what are far-reaching, proactive and positive recommendations that are going to promote and enhance diversity, in entry to the profession and in advancement in the profession. This has been a long time coming.  We had a working group that spent several years on this. One of the first things I did as Treasurer was to say: ‘Let's move this along and bring this forward to Convocation.’ I'm delighted at how well-received it was by the profession, and by Convocation, which ultimately passed it without a dissenting vote.

LC: How do you ensure that this is not another report that just sits on a shelf?

PS: Staff are mandated to implement it, and are already moving forward with a timeline for implementation. The Equity and Aboriginal Issues Committee is going to receive regular progress reports from staff.

LC: How will you convince law firms that this is important and they need to do it?

PS: We've already reached out throughout this process to talk to law firms. This report imposes requirements on law firms to do things, to adopt principles and practices to promote diversity. They're going to have to engage in reporting to us on their practices. Lawyers fill out annual reports where people can choose to self-identify, so we're going to be gathering statistics. This is something that is very much in our scope of operations. We've budgeted to adapt our data gathering so that we can gather the data the proper way and report on it.

LC: There was also a recent poll about access to justice that shows that the public is still very frustrated. They had strong words to say about how old fashioned and difficult it was accessing the justice system. What was your reaction to the results of this poll?

PS: I'm not surprised. We commissioned this poll through our TAG group (The Action Group on Access to Justice). Access to justice has been a growing issue for years. The public has a right to be frustrated. We have a court system that still operates much as it did 50 or 100 years ago. We have a whole complex host of laws out there that the public have difficulty understanding, and they have difficulty accessing legal assistance. The legal aid system, while it's had a lot of new funding put into it in the last few years, is still very much only accessible for people of a very, very low income level, if any. The courts and society have to do better in this area.

As the regulator, we are not a service provider, but we're being proactive where we can. I've established at the Law Society a legal aid working group to provide input and support for enhancing legal aid in the province. TAG was created to  bring together stakeholders in the access to justice sector, who are collaborating in various ways to modernize the justice system, looking at ways that different organizations, different legal clinics, and others can provide legal information.

Of course, we're charged with regulating paralegals. Over the last nine or 10 years since we were charged with that, we've licensed more than 8,000 paralegals who are providing legal services, often in their own businesses, in areas where lawyers were not meeting the demand. They're providing it in an economical and effective way.

We're doing those kinds of things. We're reaching out. I'll tell you, one area that we're very conscious of is outreach to new Canadians and to those for whom English is their second language, who may not readily have access to or may not understand that we are a regulated profession in Ontario. We're developing a communication strategy to raise our profile and to raise public awareness of the fact that lawyers and paralegals are licensed and regulated professionals.

We’re also developing a reconciliation framework for Indigenous peoples. We just approved an Indigenous certification specialty for lawyers. We know there's a huge need in Indigenous communities, especially in remote areas of Ontario, for legal services. We have to build trust with these communities to let them know that there are lawyers who have the cultural competencies, as well as the legal competencies, to represent them.

Another big achievement in the past year at the Law Society is the creation of our Coaching and Advisory Network, or CAN, to provide support to lawyers who are newly called, which could include internationally trained lawyers, and lawyers who are working in sole practices who need access to advice that they can't get because they're not working with other people whom they can see down the hall and bounce ideas off, or may not have access to a more senior practitioner or mentor.

LC: What have you observed about working with Convocation, with young lawyers, say with 10 years of practice, versus those with a more mature practice?

PS: Convocation itself changed quite significantly a year ago, because half of the elected benchers were new. I think what we're seeing is a profession that itself is changing, that sees the need to provide legal services in different ways, in new and innovative ways. We all walk around with computers in our pockets, and yet we go to the courthouse or we go to a tribunal, and suddenly everything is anachronistic and paper-intensive. I think we're all looking for ways to transform the profession and transform the legal system so it reflects the 21st century that we live in.

LC: What do you think the law firm of the future looks like?

PS: That's a good question. I’m not sure, and that's part of what we're trying to figure out.

LC: What do you hope to accomplish by the end of your term?

PS: I want to have an approved new approach to licensing.

LC: What made you become a lawyer?

PS: Wanting to make change, to make our laws and justice system fairer, and more just.

LC: Why did you want to be LSUC treasurer?

PS: I had been a bencher for nine years and this is my last term. I felt that I could move the Law Society in some new directions and I wanted to take a shot at doing that in a leadership role. I felt that the Law Society needed some renewal and the kind of leadership that I thought I could provide.

LC: Do you remember your election day?

PS: Yes, it was very exciting. The new treasurer is elected at Convocation  and then chairs the remainder of the board’s meeting. There's a lunch afterwards for all of the benchers. Our lunches at the Law Society have always started historically with a toast to the Queen. I've been conscious for a number of years that this was not a toast that was welcomed by some benchers, including people of Indigenous heritage who felt that it was not inclusive. I stood up, as it is the role of the Treasurer to make a toast to start the meal, and I said it's time we toasted Canada. I think that set a tone of change right away.