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Law Society of Alberta (LSA) president Darlene Scott

Alberta law society benchers approve innovation sandbox, articling placement program

Tuesday, October 05, 2021 @ 3:24 PM | By Ian Burns

The Law Society of Alberta will soon join its counterpart in British Columbia in offering an “innovation sandbox” to allow for the development of innovative legal services — and will also soon become the first law society in Canada to formally assist students who may be facing discrimination or harassment in their articles to find a new position.

Law society benchers approved the sandbox at their Oct. 1 board meeting. It is a “safe space” in which lawyers and others are encouraged to develop new models for the delivery of legal services that cannot be offered due to existing regulatory requirements. If an application is accepted under the sandbox, law society rules or the provisions of the code of conduct which prohibit operation of the model are relaxed or waived.

The goal of the sandbox is to help meet unmet legal needs in the province, with the law society saying the people who participate in the program will likely be serving consumers who do not traditionally seek out lawyers for help.

The law society’s manager of policy Shabnam Datta said there is a “demonstrated appetite” for innovation in Alberta.

“The benefits [of the sandbox] are significant, and it allows the law society to demonstrate that we are a proactive rather than a reactive participant in innovation, and the law society is committed to addressing the pressures which are impacting the legal profession and members of the public,” she said. “It also improves access for underserved or underrepresented members of the public by providing a space for cost efficient and widely available legal services.”

Applicants who are accepted into the sandbox will operate their model through a pilot program for a period of at least two years. Online applications are expected to open in the first quarter of 2022.

Benchers also approved a new articling placement program to assist students who may be facing issues of harassment or discrimination in their articles to exit their current position and find a replacement. The program was developed in response to the results of a 2019 articling program assessment survey, which showed that approximately one-third of respondents experienced harassment or discrimination, or both, during recruitment and/or articling.

Datta said the law society knows many students are in difficult positions due to the power imbalance they have with their principal.

“When a student reaches out to the regulator for help it is a step taken with great difficulty,” she said. “This program is unique in Canada — other law societies do assist their students who are dealing with difficult articles, but no other law society has developed a formal program to assist students who are in unsafe or untenable articles to find a replacement so they can complete their articling requirements.”

Once the program is up and running, students will be able to seek out the law society’s assistance and if staff determines that person has reached the criteria to establish harassment or discrimination, the law society will then take steps to terminate the articles. It has recruited a group of law firms which are willing to offer replacement articles. The articling student still has the ability to launch a complaint against the principal under the Legal Profession Act, and in rare circumstances the law society may determine that it is necessary to proceed with a complaint against the principal even though the student may not wish to take that step.

Law society president Darlene Scott

The default position of the program is that a student who reaches out is believed. Law society president Darlene Scott said benchers came down on the side of presumptively believing the student because “these situations are such that often there is no other evidence to rely on.”

“But we are not going to move without any investigation or assessment — it is not as simple as someone saying I am in an untenable position and we just say OK,” she said. “I hope we will have little to no need to rely on this program, but I think merely having it in place is of some comfort to articling students.”

In addition to the moves on the innovation sandbox and articling replacement program, benchers approved amendments to law society rules on the approval and management of trust accounts, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022. Applications have also opened for the appointment of a new bencher to replace Sandra Mah, who was appointed to Alberta’s provincial court in July. The successful applicant will serve until February 2024, when the current bencher term concludes.

The Alberta Law Society’s next board meeting is scheduled for Dec. 2 and 3.

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