Letting go of our history to meet the demands of the future
by Gavin Hume, QC
In my role as president of the Law Society, I am struck by the constant juxtaposition of the past and the future that challenges the Benchers continuously, particularly given the rapid change that characterizes the world today. The legal profession is steeped in tradition and the regulation of lawyers is based on over 125 years of precedent. Yet the demands for reform to one degree or another are pushing us to re-think almost every aspect of our role as regulators.
At the annual Benchers retreat, held last June in Whistler, the Benchers and several guests envisioned the possibilities for legal regulation in the future. We heard about the regulatory perspective from the President of the Federation of Law Societies, Ronald MacDonald, QC, as well as Malcolm Heins, CEO of the Law Society of Upper Canada. We also learned more about the government perspective from former Deputy Attorney General and Deputy Minister to the Premier, Allan Seckel, QC. And we benefitted from the academic wisdom of Dr. Paul Paton, Professor of Law at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law.
Consider the current landscape. The difficulty in accessing affordable legal services is a growing problem and we are seeing an increase in non-lawyers providing legal advice. In addition to notaries, who are currently seeking to expand their scope of practice, there are immigration consultants, workers compensation consultants, community advocates and accountants who provide tax-related legal advice. Soon, paralegals will be able to provide additional legal services, albeit under lawyer supervision. And we are witnessing a boom in online legal services for such things as incorporations and wills.
Where there is a void in the marketplace, others will seek to fill it. However, it begs the question who, if anyone, will regulate these other providers of legal services?
Though there is no pressing need to address the way we regulate now, the Benchers are anxious to stay on top of the latest thinking and be prepared for what may face us in years to come. To that end, we debated three possible futures for the regulation of the profession:
- the status quo, which includes the regulation of lawyer admissions and the discipline of lawyers and unauthorized service providers;
- a more narrow scope covering only the regulation of the professional conduct of lawyers; and,
- the much broader approach of regulation of the entire legal services marketplace.
It was a provocative, philosophical discussion with no clear conclusion in these early stages. However, the value of the retreat was in bringing these ideas to the fore and allowing all the Benchers the chance to consider what we may someday need to address.
Change cannot come fast enough when it comes to another aspect of the profession. In a recent meeting with employment lawyer Nicole Byres and crown counsel Carol Anne Finch-Noyes, both executive members of the CBA’s Women Lawyers Forum, we revisited the work that has been done in recent years to address the needs of women in the profession.
I am greatly encouraged by the efforts of many who wish to see change in the profession that will ultimately help retain women lawyers who leave in numbers far higher than their male counterparts. Two years ago, the Law Society published the “Business Case for Retaining and Advancing Women Lawyers in Private Practice,” encouraging law firms to consider the benefits of employing a diverse workforce. Some firms have taken that advice to heart.
McCarthy Tétrault LLP has been widely praised for its commitment to diversity and is a partner with the Law Society of Upper Canada in the Justicia Project, a three-year pilot project focused on developing best practices in the attraction, development and retention of women in private practice. Other firms are also stepping up to the plate.
However, we continue to be disheartened by the fact that harassment in the workplace, including sexual harassment, remains a problem in our profession. In her recent report to the Benchers, Equity Ombudsperson Anne Bhanu Chopra described how calls to her remain steady and the majority of complaints are related to sexual harassment. The report notes that there has been a 9% increase in calls from small firms and a 12% decrease in calls from medium-sized firms.
In this issue of the Benchers’ Bulletin, we explore what has been done and what still needs to be addressed to change the culture of our profession and bring us up-to-date with other professions and careers to the benefit of lawyers, firms and our clients.
I encourage you to speak up if you are the victim of any form of workplace discrimination or you witness such discrimination. Let’s not continue to let our history define our future.