Back Page: Legal guild crumbles while law grows in importance


In its 30 years, Canadian Lawyer has reported and commented on enormous changes in the legal profession.
The advent of the Charter moved the political center of gravity from political parties and elected legislators to lawyers and appointed judges — and directed an entire generation of young activists towards law school. But it’s not just the laws themselves that have changed. The entire legal culture has, too.


Thirty years ago it was rare to find a woman partner at a law firm. Today, a woman is the chief justice of Canada and women outnumber men in Canadian law schools, nearly two to one. The complexion of the law has changed as well, with more minority and immigrant lawyers and judges, reflecting the changing demographics of Canada as a whole.


But the real changes in the profession are the increasing public fluency with laws and a democratization of the practice, sometimes to the disadvantage of lawyers. Gone are the genteel days when advertising was regarded as uncouth. Now, lawyers hawk their wares as aggressively as stereo salesmen, to the benefit of billboard makers and Yellow Pages publishers alike. Contingency fees, once regarded as an improper encouragement to sue, are commonplace, and class-action mass torts, while not yet at American levels of ubiquity, are no longer rare.

With more advertising comes more information for customers and clients are more demanding than ever, both in terms of service and price. Those demands often mutate into complaints to the law societies, which now include lay members of the public as a symbol of their openness.

Clients are not as passive. Like medical patients, they increasingly come having done their own amateur legal research — a startling development made possible by legal information on the internet and not just the profusion of law-based TV shows. If it’s not homemade lawyers, then it’s paralegals, able and willing to do much of what lawyers once monopolized, for a deep discount. The cartel of the old legal guild is crumbling.

Nowhere is this more so than in society’s perception of the profession itself. The public has always been wary of lawyers, even 400 years ago when William Shakespeare wrote: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”


Some of the perception of lawyers as hyper-aggressive over-billers is a spillover from the United States, but there are enough made-in-Canada anecdotes to keep lawyer jokes amusing here, too. In the United States, it’s usually the mass tort litigators of fortune; in Canada, it’s often the criminal bar and bench that makes headlines.
Lawyers and judges — once quieter and subtler gears in the legal system engine — are now noisier. As judges make increasingly activist decisions, they draw political fire from the other branches of government.


Constitutional law scholar Peter Hogg called this a “dialogue” with politicians. Recent episodes in this dialogue can more accurately be called a public argument, as with Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s unprecedented public letter last fall chastising then justice minister Vic Toews for changing his judge-choosing advisory committees. That kind of war of words is likely to heat up. For the first time in memory, all four party leaders in Parliament are non-lawyers. Stylistically, the prime minister couldn’t be less a member of the legal fraternity and he knows his supporters are the same.

Of course, not all changes are linked to national politics. Globalization of commerce has transformed many national mega-firms into international colossi, as lawyers follow trade routes, including to nations where the rule of law is iffy at best, like China and Russia. As Canadian companies have their assets expropriated and contracts abridged in such wild jurisdictions, the role that lawyers play in protecting our basic rights and freedoms will likely become better appreciated here at home. It’s something that ay be better appreciated than the Canadian legal contribution to the gummed-up international courts, such as Justice Louise Arbour’s unsuccessful prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic.

No lawyer in 1977 could have predicted the changes f the past 30 years, and it would be difficult to predict the state of law and lawyers in Canada even 15 years from now. But, while the actual practice of law may become more complex and demanding — thanks to public scrutiny and technological changes — the importance of the legal profession will only continue to grow for those same reasons. In an era where Google’s intellectual property is worth more than GM’s factories, expect law and lawyers to become even more important. As the world’s developing countries look with envy to Canada, they surely see our legal system — despite its many flaws — as the foundation of it all. Canadian Lawyer magazine has played a key role in developing that foundation, as has this back-page column. May the next 30 years be just as interesting and rewarding.

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