Yes, but are you a *real* lawyer?

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.


Look to your left, look to your right…

…One of you won’t be here next year.

Variations of that famous phrase, according to legend, are routinely directed at first year law students, though now mostly in jest. Many people have been credited as being the first to warn law students that at least 1 in 3 wouldn’t be able to handle the rigours of law school and would soon be seeking other pursuits, with records suggesting the first utterances came as early as the 1930s, if not earlier.  If it were ever true for law students (Hint: I doubt it. And certainly not in living memory), it is seemingly now applicable to practicing lawyers (at least in the U.S.).

The American website today published an article entitled “25% Of Your Colleagues Will Quit Being Lawyers By 2022,”basing its headline on Bureau of Labor Statistics data crunched by another lawyer/blogger to reveal that the 2012-2022 “occupational transfer rate” is 25.5%. All underlying details from the Bureau of Labour Statistics are available here, and a quick review suggests the headline overstates matters slightly by omitting reference to the 2012 starting point of the exodus. However, the headline actually understates the impact of the overall change to the legal profession because it only refers to people who change careers and omits the 17.1% that simply leave the workforce for reason of retirement, family planning, etc…

Still the same legal profession?

If you change the blade twice and the handle thrice, is it still the same axe?

If 42% of lawyers exit the legal profession over any given 10-year period, at what point do the newcomers exert greater influence than the more seasoned members? Surely it’s just a matter of time before EVERTYTHING CHANGES.

This could be a tricky question to answer because you need to know who is actually leaving and whether the influence of the new has any bearing on THE WAY THINGS ARE.

Assume for the sake of argument that the dividing line between “newcomers” and “seasoned” members is 15 years at the bar. Assume also that that newcomers represent a greater proportion of career changers and that seasoned members represent a greater proportion of workforce exits. This could conceivably result in something approaching a balance between the two groups resulting in a slower march to change than a 42% decennial exit rate would suggest.

Change could come more slowly, but I doubt it.

Regardless of the mix in the exit rate as between newcomers and seasoned members, the handles and blades are still changing. Newcomers have different experiences and expectations, and seasoned members are neither a homogenous group nor blind or indifferent to the changes around them.

Change is inevitable and will be interesting, but the fascinating part will be seeing where we all come together to retain those elements of the profession that should not change.