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The way it was: 30 years of the law

Cover Story
|Written By Kirsten McMahon

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."


Women and the law

Another dramatic change from the 1970s to present day is the representation of women in the legal profession. The most recent data we could find on the topic showed there were more than 16,000 insured female lawyers in the country in 2002.

A 1977 article in  Canadian Lawyer estimated there were about 2,000 female lawyers at the time and that one out of every three law students was a woman.

(As an aside, the cover for this article featured an attractive woman dressed in lawyers' robes and drew the ire of readers. The letters poured in, mostly from women, chastising us for using a model rather than a "real woman.")

Recent law school stats show that women now represent more than half of the graduates. But are they staying and advancing in the profession at the same rate as their male counterparts? Not really. Male partners still outnumber female partners, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a female managing partner, save for McCarthy Tétrault LLP's Kirby Chown and WeirFoulds LLP's Lisa Borsook.

But things are getting better. When Bertha Wilson applied to law school in 1954, she was told to go home and take up crocheting. And when she applied to a law firm after graduation, the partners debated whether women were suited to practise law. In the '80s, Wilson earned a place on the Supreme Court of Canada.

Now, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin presides over our progressive Supreme Court, which is made up of four women and five men. Compare that to the U.S. Supreme Court, with Justice Ruth Ginsberg as the lone woman on the bench.

While women have come a long way since the sexist '70s, here's betting the strides will be even greater 30 years from now.

Some things never change

Flipping through more than 300 back issues of Canadian Lawyer, one starts to see trends developing and being formed. One also starts to see discussions and debates that will never die.

In 1983, writer Trish Chisholm wrote about "the numbers problem" and that the "single most worrisome matter" was "that of the influx of bar admissions graduates."

How many lawyers are too many? In 2006, law society rolls list more than 92,000 lawyers across the country. Law schools continue to pump out fresh-faced graduates with high tuition debt. Many are following the money to urban centres to pay off those debts and the small-town practitioner is not being replaced.

This has been a topic of debate and discussion in this magazine for the past two decades, and will no doubt be one of the biggest issues facing the profession for years to come.

But that's not the only thing that continues to be debated and will likely be the bane of contention for years to come. Law firm remuneration has always been a hot topic. In 1998, legal affairs writer Derek Lundy wrote about "brave new bills," and how alternate billing is a juggernaut that can't be avoided. Yet, no matter how many times a writer has issued the death knell for the almighty billable hour, it has yet to go away. Sure, there are blended rates, discounted rates, and the allowance of contingency fees, but it seems the billable hour is here to stay.

So where will the legal profession be three decades from now? That's hard to say, but chances are that Canada's top law firm will be part of a larger global legal organization. The sole practitioner will be on life support and alternative legal service providers will likely be servicing the smaller rural regions and service sectors like real estate, long abandoned by lawyers. Legal conflicts and court cases involving them will likely impact the make-up of Canada's top law firms. Law schools will continue to debate how many graduates are needed in the marketplace and, because of the growing complexity of law, lawyers will be expected to specialize in defined areas of practice, much like doctors do today. Legal boutiques will probably flourish and law as a business will continue to take centre stage, as female managing partners decide the fate of some major law firms. Increasing globalization will mean larger trade zones for companies that operate here and trade lawyers will no longer be the outcast partners down the hall that engage in a practice nobody really understands.

But there's at least one thing that won't change and that's Canadian Lawyer magazine. The layout might differ and we might come in a PDF format delivered to some type of personal digital content reader similar to an iPod, but like the billable hour,  will remain an old, reliable stalwart that just won't go away. We'll continue to probe, prod, poke, and tweak — providing "timely, provocative feature articles" and a "forum for debate on pressing issues of the day."

Show me the money

While flipping through the archives, we came across our first compensation survey, which debuted in June 1988. The editor at the time, Michael Crawford, called the results a healthy outlook for the profession, with more than 70 per cent of those polled planning to hire more lawyers and staff and most planning salary increases of 10 to 12 per cent for lawyers.

Times were a bit tougher in the most recent edition of the compensation survey. In June 2005, no additional hirings were planned for most respondents, and a small number were expecting layoffs. Salary increases for lawyers were between six and 10 per cent, depending on seniority. We also looked at the first corporate counsel survey, launched in 1989, to see the difference between in-house salaries then and now.


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