Shady Billing: Closing the Hall of Shame

Slaw.ca Legal Ethics Column, Jan. 30 2018

Shady Billing: Closing the Hall of Shame

Only “fair and reasonable” fees and disbursements can be charged by lawyers to their clients. This rule is uncontroversial, and applies across the country. Nevertheless, the following billing practices are used by some Canadian firms, and not clearly forbidden by regulation:[1]

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Access to Justice Levies for Lawyers: Putting Our Money Where Our Mouths Are

Slaw.ca Legal Ethics Column, Dec. 12 2017

http://www.slaw.ca/2017/12/12/access-to-justice-levies-for-lawyers-putting-our-money-where-our-mouths-are/

Tyrell Moodie, accused of drug offences and facing several years in prison, was denied a Legal Aid Ontario certificate because his income of $16,211 per year exceeded the cut-off threshold. Legal aid services for refugees in B.C. and Ontario were threatened with drastic cuts in 2017. Self-represented litigants are now the majority in many family courts, mostly because people cannot afford the legal assistance that they would love to have, and legal aid won’t pay for it.

Every media story about a legal aid shortfall includes a quote from a lawyer, pointing the finger at the government for inadequate funding. However, every time the legal profession points its finger at the state, three fingers are pointing back at the legal profession. As trustees and beneficiaries of the legal system, lawyers should make a more tangible contribution to ensuring its accessibility.

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Generalism and Access to Justice: Jack of All Trades, Master of None?

Slaw.ca Legal Ethics Column, October 6 2017

Generalism and Access to Justice: Jack of All Trades, Master of None?

The rise of specialization is among the biggest changes in the practice of law over the past hundred years. Most lawyers and paralegals are increasingly able to focus on a smaller number of legal niches. That is good news, for practitioners and also for clients. However, I will suggest here that generalist legal professionalism has an enduring role in fostering access to justice.

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Personal Plight: Mending the Market

Slaw.ca Legal Ethics Column, Aug. 11 2017

Personal Plight: Mending the Market

“Personal plight” legal services are those provided to individual clients whose legal needs arise from disputes. Personal plight areas such as family law, refugee law, and human rights are the site of Canada’s worst access to justice problems.

The market for personal plight legal services functions poorly, as Malcolm Mercer and Amy Salyzyn have shown in this space. A key problem, I suggest here, is that it is too difficult for consumers to shop intelligently. This undermines healthy competition and legal professionalism, in addition to access to justice. Regulators can and should mend the market for personal legal services.

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Long Live the Law Practice Program

I am struggling to understand the justification for the recent committee recommendation to end the Law Practice Program. The LPP is the Law Society’s alternative licensing program predominantly used by candidates unable to find articling positions.

The committee‘s central rationale seems to be that the LPP is “perceived as second tier.” They acknowledge that (i) “there is no evidence to suggest that the LPP is in fact second-tier” and (ii) the LPP is “of very high quality and may, in fact, excel over articling in a number of areas” in terms of preparing candidates for practice (para 59).

A regulator ending the LPP because it’s perceived as second tier to articling is like a regulator banning Chevrolets because they are perceived as second tier to Cadillacs. A regulator which does so must, at very least, have a realistic plan to ensure that everyone will be able to drive a Cadillac/get an articling position.  I can’t find any such plan in this Report.

The committee could have proposed reforms to expand the articling stream to accommodate everyone. For example they could have proposed that every licensed lawyer be required to either serve as an articling principal, or else contribute x% of his/her law practice income to a fund used to compensate lawyers who do serve as articling principals.

In the absence of any such plan, ending the LPP simply eliminates a path into the profession which is disproportionately used by equity-seeking and relatively disadvantaged candidates.  Perhaps more importantly, it also deprives equity-seeking/ disadvantaged would-be-clients of 200+ new lawyers per year who would be more likely to serve them than articling-track lawyers are.

The Report’s only other serious argument against the LPP is that we can’t decide who should pay for it. It costs roughly $17k per candidate.  At present a portion of this is absorbed by LSUC. Articling stream candidates pay a large share, due to the equalization of costs for LPP-stream and articling-stream candidates.

Who should pay is a tough problem, and there’s a convincing argument that the articling-stream candidates shouldn’t have to subsidize LPP-stream candidates to the extent that they currently do.  Personally, I think LSUC fees should be increased, and made progressive based on licensee income, in order to fund LPP and other A2J-enhancing initiatives.

But even requiring LPP candidates to pay the entire $17k per year themselves would be better than completely depriving them, and their would-be clients, of the opportunity to practice for which they have already invested so many years and so many tens of thousands of dollars.

The perception of second-tier or stigmatized status for LPP and its candidates is unfortunate. LSUC should fight this inaccurate perception, not surrender to it. But even if they can’t or won’t fight it, a professional path perceived as second tier is better than no path at all.