The Size of Canada’s Legal Profession

As you’ll likely know, there’s been a great deal of concern expressed here and elsewhere lately about the economic state of the profession, the most recent addition to the discussion being Mitch Kowalski’s post Articling Debate Exposes Convocation’s Flaws and the comments it garnered. I made a comment on that post suggesting that one aspect of the discussion — the complaint that the law schools are graduating too many students — might be proceeding without the benefit of data and asking whether anyone had the stats.

It’s Sunday and I was reflexively lazy. But a moment later I thought to get some of the data for myself from the website of the Federation of Law Societies. I’m reproducing what I got below, i.e. data for the years 2010 (the latest available there), 2009, 2008, and 2007. This only scratches the surface, I know. We should have a couple of decades of data available in a variety of forms if we’re going to purport to identify problems and solutions, data on numbers in and out of the profession, incomes, distribution between urban and rural, etc. As it is, the Federation data doesn’t contain information on numbers of resignations or deaths, and I suspect you’d have to involve an actuary to make full sense of things, particularly if you’re interested in projecting a “peak practice” point at some date in the future. After all, not only might there be too many young people coming in, but thanks to health care, too many old people declining to leave.

Herewith, then, the meagre crop I gleaned on a lazy Grey Cup day:

59,478 insured
24,197 exempt from insurance
83,675 total practicing members

[students called 3553 / transfers: 582 = 4135 new admissions
Note: I assume "transfers from other jurisdictions" means those coming from outside Canada.]

82,517 tot.

[students called: 3464 / transfers: 455 = 3919]

77,080 tot.

[students called: 3282 / transfers 416 = 3698]

78,658 tot.

[students called: 3268 / transfers 434 = 3702]

So: very roughly there was an increase in membership of 5,000 (~6%) over the four years. (The drop between 2007 and 2008 is curious; 2007 may be an anomalous basis for the calculation of an overall increase.) At a growth rate of 1.5% this is somewhat — but only somewhat — ahead of Canada’s population growth over the same period, which was a trifle over 1%. And although the number of law school graduates has increased each year over this period, the increase has been relatively small. The number of transfers took a bump up in 2010.

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  1. The best law school data appears to be at

    Over 15 years since 1997, first year admissions to Ontario law schools have increased by about 23 students per annum. This is 1.9 per annum at the mid point of the period. The trend is quite linear with an R Square of 92.5% for the model y = 22.607x + 1040.1.

    Notably, applications have risen much more quickly at 108 per annum (2.9% at the midpoint) over the period with R Squared of 90.6% for a linear model.

    With this pattern, it is no surprise that more Canadians are going to foreign law schools. It also would make sense for law school failuers/attrition to be decreasing as quality should be increasing given the greater competition for admission. I’m not aware of data on the attrition rate after admission.

  2. Looking at the longer term, the following appears to be the number of lawyers in Ontario per 1,000 population based on census data:

    1981 – 1.3
    1986 – 1.5
    1991 – 1.7
    1996 – 1.8
    2001 – 1.9
    2006 – 2.0

    There was a steep rise from 1981 to 1991 and then a constant increase. Whether the events of 2008 which check the trend remains to be seen.

    The number of lawyers is those who reported lawyer as their occupation so essentially practicing lawyers.

  3. Thanks, Malcolm. This is really useful. Would be interesting to check the law societies’ data agains the census self-reporting data. (Thinks: It might be worthwhile to try to gather all this in one place. Thinks again: be a pain to keep up to date, though.)

  4. I’m curious about what we mean by the concept of “too many lawyers.” Too many for what? For high rates of full-time lawyer employment? For the ability of lawyers to charge fees commensurate with their financial objectives? For the ability of consumers to find the lawyers they want at a price they can afford? For the ability of the profession to effectively govern itself?

    “Too many lawyers” is a complaint I normally hear from practicing lawyers who, having gained access to the profession, would be happy to see the door through which they entered narrowed or closed behind them. It’s also a complaint I never hear during strong economic periods — lawyers tend to lobby for a smaller profession when they feel a strong desire for less competition. I’m skeptical that complaints about lawyer overpopulation are entirely premised on the public interest.

    I’m also unsure about whether we should use population as a surrogate for market demand. Many lawyers are retained or employed by corporations, institutions or governments that are not included in raw population numbers. And many members of the population do not hire lawyers. What we could really use is some objective measure of the legal market in Canada, in terms of size, spend and type of work. But even then, not all consumers of legal services turn to Ontario lawyers to meet those needs — and in future, fewer consumers will do so.

    A properly functioning legal services market would provide a good answer to the question, “How many lawyers is enough?” That market does not currently exist and does not appear to be on the immediate horizon, although we’re certainly closer to it than we were ten years ago.

  5. Jordan, I think you’ve nailed the issue perfectly.

    I would add to that – the raw number of lawyers doesn’t tell you anything meaningful because that assumes that lawyers are equally distributed across practice areas and regions.

    Even if conclude that the number of lawyers is “right” (whatever that means) you still have the possibility that there are too many civil litigators and not enough securities lawyers, or too many lawyers on Bay Street and not enough lawyers in rural and remote areas.

  6. Malcolm — as always you are a wizard with the figures. To what extent can we determine the degree to which the growth in the number of lawyers was attributable to the dramatic growth in the larger firms between 1985 and say 2005? It strikes me that this phenomena may have absorbed a large number of lawyers in this time frame and also created a certain set of pay and job security expectations that no longer exists. There is part of me that suspects (without having the quantitative analysis to back it up) that this is why we can see the seemingly conflicting scenarios of a glut of young lawyers contrasted with an apparent shortage in rural/small urban settings — that is we now have a lot of students/young lawyers targeting a small geographical area with a small number open to practice outside of the major centres. This of course leads to the market phenomena that lawyers are too pricy for most people (suggesting a supply shortfall) while there are young lawyers frustrated at being unable to achieve their career goals (because the larger firms have limited the dramatic growth seen in the late 80′s and 90′s).

  7. I agree with Jordan. The utility of a legal education and training is not limited to the provision of legal services.

    An understanding of our laws or at least how the system operates is indispensable in a countless number of jobs and industries, from business executives, private consulting, regulatory review, privacy compliance, public interest, just to name a few.

    If the debate emerges out of the licensing problems that’s somewhat of a separate issue. I think legal training, i.e. work experience in some capacity, is also advantageous for the many non-professional roles which lawyers can play in our society.

    Lawyers are important beyond just practicing law. And although our contributions to society are not always fully cherished or appreciated, these gains cannot be simplified to analyses of too many or too few.