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Demographics of the profession set to influence the delivery of legal services in the years ahead

It has been suggested that demographics are destiny, and while some take issue with the general proposition, there is little question that age, gender and geography will influence the delivery of legal services by lawyers in British Columbia in the coming decades.

What follows are some observations by the Law Society about the historical demographics of BC’s lawyers and where the three factors of age, gender and geography will lead the profession in the future.

Age

Over 1,100 (or 10.4%) of the 10,700 practising BC lawyers today are 65 years old of age or older, compared to only 380 practising lawyers 65 or older in 2003 (4.2% of ­total). That’s an annual growth rate of 11.2%. There has also been a significant increase in the number of practising lawyers between the ages of 60 and 64, with 486 in 2003 compared with 1,245 in 2013, a 9.9% annual increase.

While 65 years of age has long been seen as a societal norm for retirement, there is evidence the norm has been changing in Canadian society generally. Statistics Canada has reported that there has been “a significant increase in delayed retirement starting in the mid-1990s, which is consistent with the increase in the employment rate of older Canadians starting in the same period.

At the same time, Statistics Canada noted in 2009 that “Canada’s population aged 65 and older has more than doubled in the past 35 years to 4.3 million — or 13% of the population — in 2006. Medium-growth scenarios suggest the senior population will grow to 23% in 2031.”

The implications of an unprecedented growth in the number of older lawyers continuing to practise remain a matter of speculation. As long ago as 1999, author Marc Galanter, in his article, “Old and in the Way: The Coming Demographic Transformation of the Legal Profession and Its Implications for the Provision of Legal Services,” predicted that “... many of the much larger number of over-fifty lawyers that will soon populate the profession will be involuntary retirees, under-employed, or otherwise inclined to forsake their practices.”

Chart - Age of practising lawyers in BC - 2003 and 2013Based on Law Society data, generally lawyers aged 65 and older who continue on in their practices work fewer hours on average than younger members of the profession.

A significantly higher proportion (48.5%) of private practice lawyers 65 years of age or older are sole practitioners compared with the overall proportion in private practice. And in keeping with the greater number of sole practitioners, practising lawyers 65 years of age or older in private practice are much more likely to be practising outside Vancouver and most likely to be found in Victoria, northern Vancouver Island and in the Fraser Valley.

At the same time, there has been very little change in the proportion of practising lawyers under the age of 40. In 2003, about 2,660 or 29% of practising lawyers were under 40 years of age while, at the beginning of this year, 2,850 or about 27% of practising lawyers were under age 40.

As a result, the distribution of practising lawyers across the entire age range is more even today than it has been since the early 1980s.

In addition to lawyers practising longer, the other reason for the more even ­distribution of practising lawyers across the age range is the number of younger lawyers leaving practice early in their careers. For example, of the lawyers called to the bar in 2008, only 78% are practising lawyers in BC today. And while a slightly higher number of female lawyers from 2008 are now non-practising or have left practice in BC, an almost equal number of male lawyers have also left or are now non-practising.

The overall impact of these two trends is that the net growth rate for practising lawyers in BC over the past several years has been about 2%. This rate is slightly lower than for a number of other provinces and territories. Based on the national statistics compiled by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, at year end 2005 there were 74,447 practising lawyers in Canada. By the end of 2010, the most recent year for Federation statistics, this number had grown to 83,675 practising lawyers. Over the period, this amounts to a 2.4% annual growth rate. Alberta, Ontario and Quebec had annual growth rates at 2.4%, 2.4% and 2.2% respectively. Both Saskatchewan and Manitoba had much higher annual growth rates, at 5.2% and 5.3% respectively, and the Maritime provinces had lower rates, ranging from 0.5% in Prince Edward Island to 1.9% in New Brunswick.

In looking at the overall population of lawyers in BC over the coming decade, the most significant unknown is whether the proportion of the profession over the age of 65 and those approaching that age will continue to grow or whether the upcoming cohort of lawyers approaching 65 years of age will choose not to continue to practise for as long as their older colleagues.

Gender

In September 1991, the Women in the Legal Profession Subcommittee published its report, Women in the Legal Profession. The report noted that, in 1990, 21% of practising lawyers were women and in 1988 (the last year for data at the time) 38.4% of those called to the bar were women.

Today, 36.8% of practising lawyers are women and, of those called to the bar in 2012, 47.5% were women. This latter percentage is a reversal of the trend we have seen in recent years of slightly more women than men being called to the bar.

The report also noted that, as of January 1990, the attrition rate for women called between 1984 and 1988 was 19% while the attrition rate for men was 11%. Today, for those called in the last five years (2008 – 2012), the attrition rate calculated in the same manner is about 19% for women and 14% for men.

Over the long term, the attrition rate for women means that only 31% of lawyers with 10 or more years of practice experience are women, compared with 49.6% of lawyers with less than 10 years experience. For lawyers in private practice, the difference in proportions is even greater. Only 24.7% of lawyers in private practice with 10 or more years of experience are women compared with 48% in private practice with less than 10 years experience.

In 1992, the Gender Bias Committee endorsed the Women in the Legal Profession recommendation that the Law Society encourage part-time work and job sharing by providing lower fees and lower insurance premiums for part-time members. The result was the part-time insurance discount that was introduced in 1994.

Since its initial introduction, the number of lawyers claiming the discount has grown to roughly 1,100 each year. Of these, 56% are men and 44% are women.

The Gender Bias Committee also endorsed the recommendation that the Law Society introduce an inactive category of membership with substantially lower fees to permit lawyers to take leaves of absence from the profession and maintain contact with the legal profession. At any given time, women are more likely to choose non-practising status than men, with 57% of the current non-practising lawyers being women.

Despite the measures put in place in the early ’90s, women continue to leave practice in greater numbers than men. And, while the increase in the proportion of women lawyers in practice from 21% in 1990 to 37% today is an improvement, the retention of women in the profession remains an unmet challenge.

Geography

As is generally known, the majority of BC lawyers are located in Metro Vancouver, with over 7,700 practising lawyers located within this region. The city of Vancouver proper has over 5,700 practising lawyers, while the city of Victoria has 960 practising lawyers. Outside these two major urban areas of the province, other cities such as Kelowna, Kamloops, Nanaimo and Prince George account for another 850 lawyers. And, while approximately three million citizens reside in these cities and urban areas, there remain about 1.4 million citizens residing throughout the rest of the province who might not find a lawyer close by.

The overall ratio of lawyers to population for the province is about one ­lawyer for every 450 residents. Based on the Federation of Law Societies statistics, this compares with about one lawyer for every 460 residents in Alberta and 437 ­residents in Ontario. The Maritime provinces, ­Saskatchewan and Manitoba have a lower ratio of lawyers to population with an average of one lawyer for every 600 residents, while Quebec has a higher ratio of about one legal advisor for every 290 residents when we combine the Barreau du Quebec and the Chambre des Notaires.

However, although the ratio of lawyers to population for BC is about one in 450, in Kitimat the ratio is one lawyer for every 4,500 residents and in Merritt it is one lawyer for every 2,400 residents. Similar examples of low ratios of lawyers to population exist throughout the province. Some of the distribution of lawyers is clearly driven by economic activity, and particularly corporate and commercial work, rather than population. Nevertheless, for personal legal services, there are some parts of the province where there are relatively few lawyers in relation to the population.

In addition to there being relatively few lawyers in some areas, there are parts of the province where the lawyer population is considerably older than average. For the province as a whole, the average age of the population of practising lawyers is 48. However, in some BC towns, the average age of the lawyer population is as much as a decade higher than the provincial ­average.

While the Rural Education and ­Access to Lawyers (REAL) program, supported by the Canadian Bar Association, BC Branch and the Law Society, is ­attempting to ­address a current and projected ­shortage of lawyers practising in the small ­communities of British Columbia, relatively few ­junior lawyers are taking up practice in those communities. Of the nearly 1,400 currently practising lawyers with one to three years of experience, only 53 are in Cariboo, Kamloops and Kootenay ­counties.

As a result of the aging lawyer demographic in the small and rural communities and the relatively few junior lawyers taking up practice in those communities, it remains likely that, over the next decade, even more small and rural communities will no longer have easy access to a lawyer. The situation is potentially a significant barrier to access to justice and legal services and clearly not one that can be easily resolved.


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