When I was growing up, I didn’t know any lawyers. They were fictional characters in three-piece suits on television, saving the day, protecting the public from wrongdoers, and engaging in super-secret business transactions. Being a lawyer was not something I aspired to, it didn’t seem like something “someone like me” could accomplish.
As I got older and weaved my way through the education system, I started to have more confidence that someone exactly like me could become a lawyer, and I entered the hallowed halls of law school in my mid-20s, still not knowing any lawyers other than TV folk who had morphed from L.A. Law’s Susan Dey to Ally McBeal’s Calista Flockhart.
After passing the bar and beginning working, it still seemed big and different and special.
I worked for a small firm in a suburb of Boston, travelling across the United States practising disability law. I was helping disabled people get much-needed federal benefits, and after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, those cases took on a bittersweet air.
After making my way to Canada (love knows no borders) and going through the lengthy, and not inexpensive, process of becoming a lawyer called to the bar of Ontario, I still felt special. I looked in awe at the Law Society of Upper Canada’s beautiful offices at Osgoode Hall and had a bit of a puffed-up chest when showing that building to my family.
Yet, that sense of purpose and hard work that made me proud to be a lawyer seems to be slowly fading.
I practise immigration law, and in the time that I’ve been in Canada, immigration consultants became recognized by the government and regulated by their own governing body.
Consultants are non-lawyers licensed by the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants who are allowed to practise Canadian immigration law. Citizenship and Immigration Canada changed its application forms to include CSIC members and welcomed CSIC consultants with open arms, granting them seemingly the same access to the process that I had as a lawyer.
At the time, it seemed innocuous. Why would someone use a non-lawyer over a highly educated, well-trained, licensed-by-a-reputable-and-established law society lawyer? Just as there are bad lawyers, there are also bad consultants and it seemed through the course of natural selection, the wheat would rise from the chaff and on it would go.
And it did go. People use immigration consultants for a variety of reasons; the biggest one generally being their lower fees. Fine, we lawyers said, you get what you pay for and we lawyers offer a lot. Maybe CSIC was making some consultants seem “special,” but us lawyers still had it better.
Then the LSUC began regulating paralegals. Suddenly, advertisements appeared in local papers and directories, “Licensed by the Law Society of Upper Canada”. Suddenly, it seemed the law society was telling me, “You aren’t so special after all.”
It wasn’t until I was standing in a suburban Wal-Mart holding a community directory and saw a paralegal’s ad touting the LSUC stamp of approval that it really drove home, “We’re now effectively the same.”
Except the “same” in this case is really separate but equal, with lawyers looking like chumps.
I spent upwards of $100,000 on my three years of legal education (not to mention the necessary bachelor’s degree), had my credentials evaluated, passed exams, and articled in a law firm in order to become a member of the LSUC.
I have fundamentally the same (even if only publicly perceived) status as someone who has taken a consultants course and become licensed by CSIC, or a paralegal with generally much less education.
I realize there are limits on what paralegals are allowed to do and I understand there are good, even great, paralegals and consultants out there making a difference in people’s lives every day. I don’t begrudge them their success. But as lawyers, we should be able to stand just a bit prouder, shouldn’t we?
Lately, there has been some discussion among the bar whether it would be advantageous for the LSUC to taking over the licensing of consultants under its paralegal scheme.
I want consultants and paralegals to be regulated, but I don’t understand why it has to be by the lawyers’ licensing body? This is a slippery slope and with each step like this, our esteemed reputation becomes that much more tarnished.
The public cannot possibly see any real difference between us if immigration consultants, paralegals, and immigration lawyers are governed by the same body, even if there are different requirements and we get called different things.
Lawyers must reach further than ever to differentiate themselves from an ever-growing crowd of fellow practitioners, let alone paralegals and consultants. Without the support of the law society, I think it’s something we now have to figure out for ourselves.
I am still proud of my legal accomplishments, whether they occurred in school, in the U.S. or in Canada. I still consider being a member of this profession to be a privilege, and I am honoured by the company I keep in my own firm and through my professional networks.
My complaint is that, from where I sit as a practitioner in a small boutique firm specializing in immigration, my governing body doesn’t think it is special, too.
Jennifer Nees is a senior associate at business immigration boutique firm, the Bomza Law Group in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected].