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.