A Matter of Trust

What distinguishes a licensed, practising lawyer from another unlicensed legal professional?

Many will say that the answer is trust. The lawyer has duties and obligations to their client pursuant to a professional code of ethics and the profession’s regulatory scheme. A regulated lawyer has professional liability insurance coverage (mandatory in Canada) and is also “covered” for theft by their local compensation fund.

Clients can rely on those structures to protect them from lawyer’s mistakes, misdeeds and misappropriations. They can place their trust in their lawyer, and failing that, the lawyer’s regulator, liability insurer and compensation fund.

I was reminded of the importance of these foundational structures yesterday when I read the headline, Lawyer faces new allegation of professional misconduct and learned that a Manitoba lawyer has been suspended and is facing allegations of misappropriating client trust funds.

Later in the day, I received another reminder with my annual invoice for practising fees from the Law Society of Manitoba. The invoice included an increased contribution to the Law Society’s Reimbursement Fund as well as a notice advising that there are a some large claims to be paid from that fund in the coming year, drawing down reserves. As a result, I (and some 1500 other Manitoba lawyers) will pay a heftier levy this year to replenish the fund for the future.

As a licensed and regulated lawyer, I am required to uphold the ethical and practice standards set by my professional body. I am required to pay my annual fees for the privilege of practising. I am required to purchase and maintain liability insurance. And I am am required to contribute to the cost of reimbursing another lawyer’s clients when that lawyer has stolen client money.

It’s a lot to swallow on the day the invoice comes from the Law Society, but it underscores the degree to which the legal profession as a whole takes seriously the obligations that flow from the trust clients have placed in us. It also points directly to the enhanced value still provided by a regulated “brand” of legal services.

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Comments

  1. Nicely said, Karen! But I might contest one point in your post: I would not classify the presence of reimbursement funds and professional insurance as reflecting “trust” in lawyers. These and similar operations are really safety nets for the client in case of poor conduct, rather than assurances of the quality or integrity of the lawyers themselves or a signal of lawyers’ inherent trustworthiness. (The fact that dues and insurance payments are increasing to reflect new claims against lawyers underlines that point.)

    What lawyers offer the public through these vehicles is an assurance of restitution for poor quality or bad behaviour — not quite a money-back guarantee, but a money-back-in-case-of-fraud-or-incompetence guarantee (and certainly not a money-back-if-things-don’t-go-your-way guarantee). That has value, but I might describe it more as “reliability” or perhaps “accountability” than “trust.” Trust is something earned (with great difficulty) and lost (with distressing ease) on an individual level. And importantly, there’s no reason that other providers outside the legal profession couldn’t create similar vehicles themselves.

    What I think is most admirable about client restitution funds is that all lawyers contribute to their upkeep, and for the most part, do so without complaint. Lawyers recognize, as you rightly point out, that this is part of our obligations as professionals. That’s something we should be proud of , and I agree that we should use it to strengthen our brand in what will soon be an open and competitive market for legal services.

  2. Point taken, Jordan. There is something contradictory about pointing to our profession’s high ethical standards while noting the protections in place should those standards not be adhered to. It’s not convincing to say: Trust me, I’m insured and your losses will be covered if I steal from you. But it should give a level of comfort, I think, to clients to know these protections exist and it is that sense that can enhance their trust, if not in the individual lawyer, then in the profession as a whole.

  3. and it IS a competitive advantage. I know of no other occupation in the country that offers institutional compensation for the dishonest conduct of its members, and lawyers are not the only profession that handles other people’s money. (With great temptation comes great responsibility?)

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