BC lawyers are governed by the Law Society of British Columbia, the purpose of which is to "protect the public interest in the administration of justice," and not to protect BC lawyers.
The Law Society is responsible for, among other things, overseeing the certification of lawyers who wish to practice law in British Columbia. The Law Society is also responsible for investigating complaints of inappropriate, unethical and/or unprofessional behaviour among BC lawyers and for punishing (by way of fines, suspension, and ultimately disbarment) BC lawyers found guilty of such behaviour.
The Law Society's requirements for certification to practice law in BC have changed significantly over time, and currently consist of three parts:
- Graduation from an accredited Canadian law school; all law schools in Canada are currently accredited.
- Successful completion of the 10-week Professional Legal Training Course (commonly referred to as "PLTC") and related examinations, where many lawyers get their first experience with practical, rather that theoretical, legal issues.
- Completion of a 12-month "articling" period at a law firm, practicing law under the supervision of experienced lawyers. (Ten weeks of the 12 months are taken up by PLTC.)
(There are specific circumstances where one or more of these requirements is modified or avoided, but these three are generally applicable.)
Upon meeting these three requirements, the lawyer attends a "Call Ceremony", where he or she is "Called and Admitted to the Bar of British Columbia." Upon completion of this process, the newly-minted BC lawyer is legally entitled to practice law in BC as a Barrister and Solicitor.
"Barrister" and "Solicitor" are terms inherited from the English legal system, though in British Columbia they have come to have somewhat different connotations attached to them; they have come to correspond roughly to "courtroom lawyer" and "non-courtroom lawyer," respectively. In British Columbia you are far more likely to hear the term "litigator," rather than "barrister," in reference to a courtroom lawyer (as "litigation" is the process of suing or defending a lawsuit). You may, however, still hear a non-courtroom lawyer referred to as a "solicitor." Lawyers (litigators and solicitors) are also often commonly referred to simply as "legal counsel." Another modern tendency is to refer to lawyers by their area(s) of practice, for instance as a "criminal defense lawyer," a "family lawyer," or a "business lawyer." None of these terms are "right" or "wrong": they are all merely descriptive, because all BC lawyers who have been "called" are technically qualified to practice and advise on all British Columbia law, including federal law applicable in British Columbia. Actual ability, in the form of experience and competence, of course, can be a different matter.
BC lawyers learn most of their practical legal skills, and much of their theoretical legal knowledge, through experience. Law school curriculae in British Columbia (and English-speaking Canada generally) are designed primarily to provide lawyers with a thorough understanding of general legal concepts, but cannot hope to cover all of the law thoroughly enough to have graduating students knowledgeable in all of the case and statute law they will ever need to know. Further, they provide relatively little practical experience in terms of either applying that knowledge to real-world situations, and similarly little knowledge or experience in purely practical aspects of legal practice such as courtroom and trial procedure. So while law school is an essential element of the training of a competent lawyer, on its own it is hardly sufficient. It is the real-world use (and expansion) of a law school education, and the practical skills necessary to exercise that education, that builds a true lawyer.
"Specialization" in a particular legal area or areas arises primarily through such practical experience. As you would expect, lawyers who participate in numerous legal transactions, disputes or negotiations of a certain type gain greater experience in such situations than other lawyers. BC lawyers also have the opportunity to further their knowledge of specialized legal fields by attending specialty law courses, offered by the "Continuing Legal Education Society" and other groups; in certain instances, they may return to university for further education in specialized legal fields. Relatively few BC lawyers return to school to earn Masters' degrees in particular areas of the law. But real-world participation in legal work is essential to build up truly useable legal knowledge of any kind, and this is especially so for "specialist" knowledge.