Despite recent years of decades-low law school application levels, law school seats are still heavily over-subscribed. Similarly, for those who graduate (which, to be honest, is nearly every single admitted student that manages to pay tuition), the opportunities to be called and to practice as a lawyer is case of too many grads and too few jobs. Yet when it comes to supporting the legal needs of the public, lawyers aren’t even close to filling the chairs that exist, much less the new ones added each day. Worse, we’re increasingly less interested in doing so.
Estimates and sources vary, but we routinely hear numbers in the range of 70-85% when people discuss the prevalence of legal or justiciable issues that could be but aren’t addressed by a lawyer. That’s a lot of empty chairs!!!
Our lives aren’t getting any less complicated, and the need for guidance on legal matters will not only remain significant but will surely grow. So if the same or even an increasing number of “chairs” are being added, who will step up to fill them?
With the exception of a closing thought at the end, I’ll refrain in this post from getting into the protectionist regulatory environments through which lawyers limit the opportunity for others to step in and serve the public need and the public interest. Instead, I’ll focus on the trends showing that fewer lawyers are seeking careers where we serve the public directly.
17% decline in total number of solo practitioners and 10% decline among total number of licensees working in Ontario law firms
In the 2013 Annual Report of the Law Society of Upper Canada we learn that 9,072 lawyer licensees declared their primary business activity as operating their one-person law firm. In the 2015 report that number was down dramatically to 7,577.
Those same reports tell us that in 2013, there were 26,731 lawyers and licensed paralegals working in Ontario law firms. In 2015 we saw a surprising drop down to 23,938 licensees.
These numbers are all the more shocking considering that during this two-year period, Ontario admitted 4,200 new lawyers and 2,500 new paralegals. Even accounting for offsetting departures from both streams of the Ontario legal profession, the province still saw a net increase of 3,000 lawyers and 1,700 paralegals to the rolls of the Law Society.
When we note further that the population of Ontario increased by 241,000 people during this same period, it’s hard to avoid concluding that the chairs of legal need keep appearing, but our fellow licensees are not rushing to fill them.
Barely half of Ontario’s lawyers are even insured to serve the public.
The law in Ontario provides that any lawyer who practices law must have malpractice insurance, yet there are many categories for which the lawyer is exempt from the obligation. These include categories for non-practicing lawyers as well as for lawyers whose practice is strictly limited to serving their employer – be it corporate, government, or other. LawPRO, the malpractice insurer for Ontario lawyers, reports that it provided Errors and Omissions insurance to 25,500 lawyers in 2015. Relative to the 49,040 Ontario lawyers on the rolls, that means just 52% of us are choosing to keep the door open to serving the public.
In terms of “full-time-equivalent” lawyers,serving the public, the number is certainly below 50% since within the insured cohort, a little over 7% are insured for part-time practice only. “Part-time” lawyers declare that they intend to allocate less than 20 hours a week to the practice of law. How many of those, like me, practice for well below the 20 hour limit is unknown.
Now, Ontario isn’t necessarily representative of the rest of Canada – or of the United States or any other jurisdiction struggling with access to justice challenges and an underserved population. But neither is Quebec, where we learn from the Barreau du Quebec that at the end of 2014, only 39.8% of lawyers are in private practice. Representative or not, it is remarkable that across Canada’s two largest provinces – which account for nearly 75% of the Canadian legal profession – the majority of lawyers do not serve the public directly.
When we see more and more people wanting to be lawyers, and most of them are choosing careers where they do not serve the public directly, it this the tipping point we needed to invite others into law’s game of reverse musical chairs? If not, what other signs could we possibly be waiting for to definitively conclude that the public’s need for legal assistance will not be addressed by lawyers alone?