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Focus: Ontario firms slow to embrace locum option

Coping when lawyers take extended time off for maternity leave, bereavement or sickness poses a challenge for many law firms.

Unlike in the United States and Britain, Canadian law firms haven’t traditionally brought in locums on short-term contracts to provide temporary cover.

But those in Ontario have access to 155 locums through the Law Society of Upper Canada’s contract registry, according to the latest LSUC figures.

The law society set up the registry in 2009 to put firms in touch with qualified lawyers available for temporary work. It expanded it in March 2013 to include paralegals.

Data analyzed by Law Times shows that of the 155 locums, most are available for corporate commercial work (87 per cent), followed by contracts and legal research (both at 84 per cent), civil litigation (81 per cent), and family law (59 per cent).

Since the program’s inception, there have been 436 requests for locums through the registry, says LSUC equity adviser Josée Bouchard.

“Lawyers typically use the contract registry for parental, long-term disability or bereavement leaves as well as help with big cases and extended vacations,” says Bouchard.

“Some lawyers have requested names of registrants to help build or expand their solo or small firms.”

Dal Bhathal, managing partner at the Counsel Network, says there has historically been only a very small pool of candidates in Canada willing to work on a temporary basis, especially for contracts lasting less than a year.

A possible reason is “there isn’t as much in the way of high-level [contract] work” compared with bigger financial hubs like New York and London, England, she notes. These locations attract locums partly “because although the risk is higher, often the compensation is high, too, even at small firms,” says Bhathal.

Short-term legal work in Canada is most likely to take the form of a secondment or a contract for a large litigation case, she says.

Feedback received by the law society suggests that those who have made themselves available for locum work through the registry are mainly seeking the flexibility it offers.

Some are returning from extended leave themselves or looking for occasional work.

“Some are newer lawyers who want to gain experience in different areas of law,” Bouchard adds.

All locums on the registry must be registered with the LSUC and a licence to practise in Ontario. The LSUC web site lists them anonymously along with a profile describing their experience, expertise, and the areas they’re willing to travel to. People can obtain their contact information on request for free from the LSUC.

But locum lawyers in certain practice areas may be hard to come by. For example, only 10 per cent of locums on the LSUC registry claim to specialize in medical malpractice, franchise matters or elder law. Slightly more — 12 per cent — are available for tax law matters.

TOP 10 PRACTICE AREAS COVERED
BY LSUC-REGISTERED LOCUMS
PRACTICE AREA NO. OF LOCUMS

Corporate/commercial 135
Contracts 130
Legal research 130
Civil litigation 126
Family law 92
Wills, trusts, and estates 77
Real estate 73
Administrative law 65
Labour and employment 62
Criminal law 57

The numbers will be of little concern to firms that prefer managing without an extra pair of hands. It’s common industry practice for lawyers to simply take on an absentee’s workload and many people will stay in regular contact with the office during vacations.

Stephen McCotter, partner at McCotter Law, says: “Taking someone on is impractical because many of my clients have selected me over a number of other lawyers. To say someone’s taking over my file isn’t something I’d feel comfortable with.”

Lawyers in small towns place a particular emphasis on the very close relationships they forge with clients, something that makes bringing in an “unknown entity” especially problematic, McCotter suggests. He takes his BlackBerry and laptop with him on vacation and says maternity leave hasn’t been an issue on his team as all the lawyers are male.

The need to make it easier for women in private practice to go on maternity leave was one of the triggers for the registry. In fact, the registry flowed from recommendations in a 2008 report by the LSUC’s retention of women in private practice working group.

Kathryn Hendrikx, president of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario, says there’s anecdotally a “high awareness but low uptake” of the registry among the organization’s members.

There’s little understanding of how the registry operates, she says, and sole practitioners going on maternity leave tend to just wind down files or transfer them to another lawyer on an ad hoc basis.

But she thinks the situation will change as “more women make choices for work-life balance and aren’t feeling pressured to take a short-term maternity leave.”

She adds: “Things like a locum will become more of an option by necessity.”

It seems the easier availability of locums is unlikely to change the legal profession’s work practices overnight and the idea of hiring a stranger to take over files for a period of time won’t appeal to everyone. However, as Hendrikx puts it, “There are a lot of new up-and-coming lawyers doing things differently: outsourcing, trying to achieve a work-life balance.” For some, that’s where locums will fit in.

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