The way it was: 30 years of the law

  • Subtitle: Cover Story
Written by  Kirsten McMahon Posted Date: February 6, 2007
From the sexist '70s to the go-go '90s, the legal profession has undergone nothing short of a revolution in the 30 years since Canadian Lawyer first hit the streets in 1977. Gone are the quaint, genteel days when lawyers practised law in small firms equipped with a secretary and a Dictaphone and civility was the order of the day. Today, mammoth legal giants dot the landscape, with hundreds of lawyers and support staff equipped with more desktop computing power than NASA had for many of its Apollo missions. Lack of civility is under fire and lawyers labour under the billable hour and client demands.

From the threats of separation in the 1970s to our recent cover story on the struggles of law firms outside Canada's urban centres, Canadian Lawyer has been there to document history.

Looking back over 30 years of Canadian Lawyer, it's interesting to see how many things have changed and how many things have stayed the same, both in the pages of this magazine and in the legal profession at large.

When the concept of Canadian Lawyer was hatched 30 years ago by then-Crown prosecutor Will Hetcher, defence-lawyer-turned-journalist Harold Levy, and journalist Michael Posner, the idea was to create a magazine with "timely, provocative feature articles" and provide a "forum for debate on pressing issues of the day."

There's no doubt that the magazine has lived up to its billing, winning numerous awards over the years for its gritty coverage of lawyers and legal issues and being one of the first law magazines to introduce elements such as salary and technology surveys — and one time even rating judges, a story that brought the ire of the bench down on the publication. Today, ratings, rankings, and surveys are common fare in today's legal press and
 continues to provide the profession with insight into the issues lawyers face and the development of law as a business.  

Technology revolution
In fact, one of the biggest differences between 1977 and now — besides the long-gone ads in the magazine touting whiskey, cigars, and sports cars — is how technology has transformed the legal profession and propelled the shift towards law as a business.

Technology has been one of the biggest agents of change over the past three decades, giving rise to other changes within the legal profession. Without the technology we have today, it's doubtful the concept of a national firm would work.

In 1986, an article entitled "The computer and the small office" warns that in order to "survive in an increasingly cutthroat market" one needs to have the latest tools: computers. In the article, lawyer Ron Starchuk describes buying an Apple PC in 1981 to see if it could be applied to his Calgary practice.

"When I first took it home I played Spaced Invaders, but eventually I used it to mainly to see how it could be used in the office," he wrote.

By this point, many firms had been fully computerized since the early '80s, but many were still resistant to get with the tech wave. It's hard to imagine anyone functioning without at least a computer these days, never mind cell phones, BlackBerry devices, PDAs, etc.

When  polled senior and managing partners across Canada to see what they thought were some of the biggest changes in the profession over the past 30 years, the answer was overwhelming: technology has changed  we do.

"In 1977, we were still using typewriters and faxes were in their infancy.  We still received most of our correspondence by mail," says Michael Sinclair, managing partner of Winnipeg's Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP.   

"As word processing equipment was introduced, we began to have the capability to produce documents more quickly.  As faxes were improved, we began to be able to communicate more quickly.  As technology increased the speed at which things could be done, clients began to expect that their work would be done more quickly and lawyers began to lose the time that used to be available to consider what they were doing."

"Improved communications and technology, from telex machines, to fax machines, to e-mail and BlackBerry devices, have either caused or have been invented in response to the greatly accelerated speed at which commercial transactions now take place," says Terrence Cockrall, managing partner of Edmonton's Parlee McLaws LLP.

Howard Drabinsky, managing partner of the eastern division at Lang Michener LLP, says that instantaneous
worldwide communication in particular has dramatically changed the way that law is practised and clients' expectations have changed accordingly.  

"Work that in the past would have taken days or weeks to complete is now expected to be taken to conclusion before the end of the day. The extraordinary pace in the reduction of the cost of owning the latest communications devices has evened the playing field somewhat amongst legal professionals. In addition, these devices have become necessities in day-to-day business transactions.

"Of course, with change comes opportunity. This ongoing revolution will continue to present members of the legal profession with both exciting and unexpected outcomes," he says.

Indeed. Despite technology sometimes being a thorn in our sides, there's little doubt that the advent of national firms and international firms and the merger mania of the 1990s would have happened but for technology.

The rise of national law firms
And while we're on the topic of national firms, that's another area that has changed over the last 30 years. In one of our first issues, Winnipeg lawyer Gerald Posner wrote that until law societies adopt a less-restrictive approach to lawyer mobility, a national law firm may be a dream that will never happen.

A decade later, law societies started bringing down the barriers and the national firm was born.
"From a corporate law point of view, I think a significant development has been the growth of the national firms. Thirty years ago there were few, if any," says Stuart Cobbett, managing partner of Stikeman Elliott LLP's Montreal office.

Of the 10 largest firms in the country, almost all have offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Montreal, and Calgary. Of the top 20, most operate in at least two of these cities.

"What I think is interesting is the rise and fall of certain firms," says Roderick Barrett, managing partner of the Toronto office of Stikeman Elliott LLP, who was articling 30 years ago.

"When I started to article the big firms were obviously Blakes and McCarthys, Campbell Godfrey & Lewtas, McMillan Binch, and now it's a completely different subset, which is quite extraordinary. Torys was just a little guy 30 years ago. . . . It's not even just the mergers, it's more who were the premier firms 30 years ago and who are the premier law firms now and what happened? I bet you in the next 30 years it will change again."

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