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Lawyer Clayton Ruby, accused the law society of harbouring a ‘death wish’ on the parental-leave issue.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The public has been given a rare window into a profession in turmoil, as leaders of the Ontario bar debate the future of articling, the treatment of female lawyers and whether young lawyers are unprepared to practise law.

At the end of 10 hours of emotional debate in the Law Society of Upper Canada's governing council Thursday, it was clear that some of the country's top legal minds believe their profession is, in effect, broken.

Some members of the regulatory body warned that other provinces are already worrying about whether Ontario has lost its way.

"What does that say about regulation of the profession in Ontario?" asked council member Gavin Mackenzie.

Toronto lawyer Beth Symes, a fierce defender of a parental-leave program aimed at keeping female lawyers in the profession, expressed astonishment that influential members of the law society were prepared to kill it off to save money.

"How did we get into this mess," Ms. Symes said. "How did we get so far offside?"

Another council member, criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby, accused the law society of harbouring a "death wish" on the parental-leave issue.

"It is not acceptable in 2012 to say we will keep incurring these losses of young women from our profession," Mr. Ruby said.

In the end, the council voted by a large margin to keep the program, which pays benefits of up to $9,000 to women with small law offices who cannot afford to maintain their overhead.

In a compromise that salvaged the program, a means test will be incorporated by 2014 to restrict benefits to those whose legal practice nets less than $50,000 a year.

In another vote Thursday, the council responded to a critical shortage of articling positions by creating an alternative path to the profession. It calls for four months of extra classroom education as well as an unpaid, co-op work placement.

During debate, some council members expressed misgivings about the competency of many students flocking to a legal career.

"The law schools are now sending us flood upon flood of students," said lawyer Bradley Wright. "Because no one fails any more, being accepted into first-year law school guarantees you a call to the bar. … Just show up at the door and you will be accepted into our profession."

Marion Boyd, a former Ontario attorney-general, said the profession is risking its credibility by watering down its high standards.

"I think the public would be concerned to hear how many of us have reservations about how the current system is preparing them [young lawyers]," Ms. Boyd said.

Another council member, Mark Sandler, said the articling problem has added to a worsening problem.

"Judges increasingly report that lawyers appear in front of them without having basic legal skills," Mr. Sandler said. These newly minted lawyers are unable to adequately argue a case, question witnesses or make calculated judgments on how to pursue a case, he said.

"We have to acknowledge that the problem is profound," Mr. Sandler said. "You cannot learn how to practise law from a book."

Toronto lawyer Christopher Bredt decried that fact that lawyers can practise in virtually any field of law regardless of whether they know the basics. "Most professions don't allow people to practise in areas where they are not competent to practise," he said.

Articling positions have been an indispensable prerequisite for those entering the profession. About 400 law students were unable to secure an articling position last year.

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