This is not a trick question, but a question that is tricky nonetheless.
On one hand, if one can define who a real lawyer is, then it should be easy to define what a real lawyer does. On the other hand, we wouldn’t expect any among a labour arbitration specialist, criminal defence lawyer, corporate solicitor drafting a tricky intellectual property license agreement, or in-house counsel at a child welfare agency to perform at the top of their game in any but their chosen field.
Notwithstanding any inability to do what the other can do, no one would doubt that each is a *real* lawyer. So what is the common thread?
Hint: it’s a code.
Is “lawyer” what you do or who you are?
Over the past couple years I’ve developed a short answer to the question “what do you do?”
My answer: I’m a lawyer, but not a useful one.
That is, I can’t write your will, handle your divorce, help you with your kid’s drunk driving charge, advise you on the sale of your business. Well, I suppose I could if I wanted to. The law society has imposed no restrictions my permitted scope of practice and, like most lawyers, I possess that wee bit of hubris that makes me believe that I could probably figure out how to do any of these things. But in reality I wouldn’t dare create a risk to myself or to a prospective client by dabbling in areas of legal practice where I haven’t developed the necessary skills.
In truth, my legal skills and experience make me extremely useful. Just not to most people in most circumstances. Are you a phone, cable or internet company with an issue before the CRTC or Industry Canada? Then I’m your guy. Or maybe you need someone to handle the intricacies of running a legal publishing company? I’ve got you covered there as well.
Throughout my career I’ve moved closer to and farther from “legal work”. I’ve been the client as often as I’ve been the lawyer, and in many cases I’ve been both at the same time (accountable for the business/client interest while working alongside designated counsel in devising the legal strategy or co-drafting the agreement). Given the fluidity of my activities and narrow scope of pure legal expertise, my claim to being a lawyer might be just as surprising to private practice lawyers as it was to the members of my softball team after years of playing together, but I still make the claim. Why?
Like each of the traditional legal specialists I’ve mentioned in this post, I possess a license to practise law and I’ve accepted and internalized the obligations and duties that attach to that license.
As we become more different, the common thread becomes more important
If ever there was a time where law students were of a common type and lawyers shared a common experience, those days are long gone. Increasing diversity of experience (life, education, socioeconomic status) among incoming law students and expanding diversity of post-call professional opportunities available to lawyers represents the new normal. Each is far more likely to carve out a unique path of learning and practice than they are to find their choices and options constrained and dictated by others.
A diverse legal profession will also approach current challenges from very different perspectives. Some examples:
- How does a law school design a curriculum that prepares future lawyers (assuming that’s even a priority!) when no one can predict the work environment?
- Which work environments, if any, pose unique threats to a lawyer’s integrity? A firm with non-lawyer ownership? A firm with thousands of lawyers across multiple continents? A government or corporate office with tens of thousands of employees and a rigid, hierarchical reporting structure? An underfunded social agency or not-for-profit organization? A two-lawyer partnership where one partner suffers personal challenges impacting their ability to serve their client?
- Where the Venn diagram of what the public needs and what lawyers do clearly shows the majority (by many estimates) of legal needs and justiciable issues going unaddressed or being addressed by other means, what steps will improve access to justice?
Just as what a lawyer does should not define who is a “real” lawyer, neither should opinions on how the legal profession ought to face its current challenges.
Current and future generations of lawyers will have little in common beyond their license to practice and their adherence to a professional code of conduct. While the license may make the lawyer, ultimately it is the strength of code on the conscience of the individual that will define a “real” lawyer.