Can the Oil Sands Fuel a Legal Resurgence?

As an educator of undergraduate and post-graduate students who often contemplate a legal career, I still encourage my students to consider law school, despite the tuition burden and uncertain opportunities given changes in the legal profession.

Then I came across something curious – a Canadian Business ranking of the best jobs in Canada, with lawyers topping the list at #1.

The magazine’s methodology lists the following factors for the ranking:

  • employment growth of the past 5 years (25%),
  • median compensation (based on a 40-hour workweek) in 2013 (40%),
  • the change in median compensation from 2007–08 to 2012–13 (10%); and,
  • projected demand for those jobs using data from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (25%).

The listing acknowledges disruptions affecting the legal field, the shortages of positions for new lawyers, and symbolic events such as Heenan Blaikie’s demise.

Yet it emphasizes employment opportunities in the energy sector, presumably fueled by the oil sands in Alberta and the related legal work that it has generated.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) predicts an enormous surge in oil output over the next few decades. Alberta leads the country in predictions of economic growth over the next two years, and an IHS CERA Oil Sands Dialogue study predicts the oil sands will drive huge employment growth in the years to come. Unfortunately only a small fraction of the approximately 85,000 lawyers in Canada work in Alberta or in the energy sector.

Legal work may come in however in assisting with environmental compliance, which is earmarked as one of the major obstacles for sector growth. Concerns have also been raised over cost inflation which could affect oil sands profitability. Of course if there’s less profits, there’s probably less legal work to be had as well.

The Canadian Business listing emphasizes specialization, which is only possible after years of experience. The listing also mentions smaller practices, already the norm for majority of lawyers, and alternative business models, which have the potential for greater work-life balance. Although this will continue to be the inevitable outcome of most legal careers in Canada, these options rarely pay in the range of the highest salaries polled in their survey.

In conclusion, The Canadian Business forecast for the legal profession is probably overly optimistic. The economic growth in the oil sands will not be sufficient in itself to drive the entire legal industry, even if there is significant opportunities in corporate and environmental law.

A more plausible explanation is that the survey compares current employment indicators to the situation 5 years ago, when the legal industry was in an identifiable slump. At best we can probably infer that the legal industry has bounced back from this time, but this is in no way predictive of the next 5, 10, or 15 years of growth and change in legal employment to come.

The advice I give to aspiring law students still holds true. If you’re simply interested in making money, go into a different field. If you want a profession which can challenge you intellectually, and one where you can even make a difference in the fabric of the world, there’s no other field like law. The legal profession still maintains many unique and distinct opportunities, but employment stability and high compensation cannot be pegged as guaranteed characteristics of what is to come.


Comments are closed.