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Law Society of Ontario Votes to Discontinue Certified Specialist Program


The Law Society of Ontario recently announced that the Board of Directors approved a new Competency Framework to enhance the career-long competence of lawyers and paralegals. In June 2021, the Law Society’s Competence Task Force issued a consultation report titled “Renewing the Law Society’s Continuing Competence Framework and invited lawyers, paralegals, legal organizations and members of the public to share their ideas on how to support lawyer competence. Based on the feedback received, the Task Force issued a follow-up report.

The new framework adopts recommendations from the follow-up report which, among other things, includes eliminating the Certified Specialist program for all specialties with the exception of Indigenous Legal Issues. The program is set to expire as of January 1, 2023. Lawyers currently recognized as Certified Specialists may continue to use the “C.S.” designation until December 31, 2022.

Reasons for Dissolving the Certified Specialist Program

By its own admission, the Task Force did not receive many submissions regarding the Certified Specialist program. Of the submissions it did receive, slightly more than half were in favour of maintaining or modifying the program, while slightly less than half felt the program was not a true measure of excellence and were in favour of eliminating it entirely. Interestingly, the majority of respondents in favour of eliminating the program had not participated in the program themselves.

Members of the Competence Task Force felt that the Certified Specialist program was not an effective ongoing competence regime. The Task Force cited several reasons for their recommendation:

  • the program does not assure or improve competence;
  • there is no mechanism to ensure ongoing elevated expertise; and
  • resources expended on the program could be better utilized elsewhere;
  • a lack of interest in the program.

“Grandparenting” Scheme for Certified Specialists Opposed by Law Society Benchers

The Competence Task Force had initially recommended a scheme essentially “grandparenting” in the already-designated Certified Specialists, but this was met with harsh criticism and ultimately abandoned. The proposed scheme would have allowed those with a “C.S.” designation to retain and use it until they stop practicing or give up their license with the Law Society of Ontario.

This was not ultimately adopted, and an outright dissolution was favoured instead. Many are critical of the decision. In fact, a petition has been started to re-instate the designation or, at the very least, allow members to retain it. After all, lawyers who are Certified Specialists have rightfully earned the designation.

How the Indigenous Legal Issues Specialization is Distinguishable from the Others

The Indigenous Legal Issues Specialization was developed in consultation with Indigenous and legal communities in 2016. It contains three sub-specializations in Corporate and Commercial, Rights and Governance, and Litigation and Advocacy.

Those who apply for this specialization must submit a statement confirming their knowledge of Indigenous cultures, perspectives, and contexts. A reference from at least one member of an Indigenous community is required.

Given the hurdles to obtaining this specialization, in addition to its unique role in contributing to intercultural understanding, the Competence Task Force recommended that it be maintained in its current form.

The Certified Specialist designation offers a Strong Value Proposition for Lawyers

In 2020, roughly 2% of practicing lawyers had been designated as Certified Specialists. For several years there has been limited interest in the program, despite several program modifications specifically designed to increase enrollment.

Currently, there are 17 main specialty areas recognized by the Law Society:

While the low numbers may have been a contributing factor in the program’s elimination, from a marketing standpoint, the specialist designation serves as a strong value proposition that creates clear differentiation between certified lawyers and their non-certified competitors. Marketing yourself as a specialist who has been certified by the Law Society of Ontario as an expert in a certain field is a very compelling and effective unique value proposition. From a marketing perspective, the fact that only 2% of all lawyers in the province are certified, enhances the already high value of the designation even further.

The number of Certified Specialists within each specialty varies considerably. It’s interesting to note that there tend to be fewer specialists in B2B-focused practice areas such as Bankruptcy and Insolvency Law (8 specialists), Health Law (19 specialists), and Corporate and Commercial Law (25 specialists), as compared to B2C-focused practice areas such as Family Law (60 specialists), Criminal Law (77 specialists), and Civil Litigation (259 specialists) which may be a reflection of the impactfulness of the designation when marketing services to business versus consumers.

Legal Marketing Rules for Ontario Lawyers

With the change occurring in Ontario in 2023, it is worthwhile to reiterate the current rules around Certified Specialists that will persist until the new year. Section 4.3-1 of the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct states: “A lawyer shall not advertise that the lawyer is a specialist in a specified field unless the lawyer has been so certified by the Law Society.” This is also reflected in section 20(2) of the Law Society’s By-Law 15.

The dissolution of the program will likely affect the language Certified Specialists are currently allowed to use alongside their designations but official details have yet to be released. It’s also unclear, at this time, whether reference to the designation or the program as it once was will be permissible (eg. Dan Fielding was recognized by the Law Society of Ontario as a Certified Specialist in Criminal Law prior to the program’s discontinuation in 2022) or whether marketing materials such as websites, blogs, social media pages, videos, business cards, stationary, etc. will need to be scrubbed of previous mentions. Umbrella Legal Marketing has reached out to the Law Society for further clarification and will provide additional information as soon as it becomes available.

Despite the limitations on using the Certified Specialist designation until its elimination early next year, lawyers will still be able to advertise their preferred areas of practice in Ontario and experience in a particular area of law.

Advertising Certified Specialists outside of Ontario

Of course, other provinces have their own rules pertaining to the Certified Specialist designation. For instance, the Law Society of Alberta Code of Conduct contains nearly identical rules to those in Ontario. Section 4.3-1 reads: “A lawyer must not advertise that the lawyer is a specialist in a specified field unless the lawyer has been so certified by the Society.” Similarly, so long as the lawyer is not misleading, they can describe preferred areas of practice or proficiency in a type of law.

The Code of Professional Conduct for British Columbia goes further by not only prohibiting the unauthorized use of “specialist” but also by encouraging lawyers to discourage its use. Its own section 4.3-1 reads:

Unless otherwise authorized by the Legal Profession Act, the Law Society Rules, or this Code or by the Benchers, a lawyer must:

  1. not use the title “specialist” or any similar designation suggesting a recognized special status or accreditation in any other marketing activity, and
  2. take all reasonable steps to discourage use, in relation to the lawyer by another person, of the title “specialist” or any similar designation suggesting a recognized special status or accreditation in any marketing activity.

Not all provinces designate certified specialists at all, however. Section 4.2-1 of the Law Society of Prince Edward Island Code of Professional Conduct does not allow law firms marketing legal services to include the words “specialist”, “specializing”, “expert”, “expertise”, or any synonyms of those words.

Umbrella Legal Marketing adheres to Industry Standards and Law Society Regulations

When marketing your legal services, it’s important to ensure that you are advertising your services in compliance with the Law Society’s standards. That’s why it’s essential to stay on top of developments in the digital space and understand how they can impact your law firm. Better yet, consider consulting with legal marketing experts who can help ensure your marketing content attracts clients while maintaining your ethical duties as a lawyer.

At Umbrella Legal Marketing, we understand the unique needs of the legal market, the ethical and practice standards that govern the profession, and how to effectively combine these specific demands with the realities of marketing in the social media and online age. If you would like to learn more about how we could assist you please contact us online or at 416-356-4672.