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Profession’s reputation a lost cause, lawyers told

|Written By Michael McKiernan

Lawyers need to stop worrying about the profession’s reputation with the public since it’s a lost cause, according to a Bay Street lawyer and former politician.

Not everyone has the skill set needed to be a sole practitioner, says Laurie Pawlitza.

Instead, Tim Murphy, chief marketing partner at McMillan LLP, said lawyers should embrace their role as service providers and focus on improving access to

justice.

“We don’t save lives, we don’t feed people, we don’t rush into burning buildings except accidentally,” he said. “We do play a key role in the system as defenders of the minority view and the unpopular.

Unsurprisingly, that’s going to make us unpopular. I think people understand that it’s a role we play and that it’s important that we play it, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to like it.

“To the degree that any of our negative reputation comes from the quality of our service or its accessibility, we need to be unerring in fixing those problems. Those are the things that we can do something about and those are the things we ought to do something about.”

Murphy, a former Liberal MPP in Toronto, was the keynote speaker at the Law Society of Upper Canada’s sixth annual Solo and Small Firm Conference and Expo on June 3-4 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Jokes about the profession have been around for as long as there have been lawyers, and Murphy said those who wish to stamp them out and put themselves in the same bracket as doctors, firefighters, and nurses are simply aiming too high.

“Certain public opinion truths are inalienable. We are seen as a necessary evil; inevitable, like death and taxes. In public opinion terms, we are expensive, inaccessible, have situational ethics, defend criminals, and are involved in politics. Wow, don’t we sound great?”

Murphy said he learned from his time as chief of staff to former prime minister Paul Martin that views as entrenched as that are tough to shake, especially when media portrayals reinforce them. “They carry a decidedly warped view of what we do. That’s just the nature of it, and there’s not much we can do to change it.”

In addition, lawyers are also associated with the most difficult times in people’s lives when they’re facing family breakdowns, criminal charges, accidents, injuries, and other kinds of disputes.

“It’s our job to help when these things happen, so we’re associated with being needed when things aren’t good,” Murphy said.

According to Murphy, the real opportunities to make a difference to the public perception of lawyers come with direct contact.

A study in Alberta showed the vast majority of those who paid for a lawyer were satisfied with the cost, while the Ontario Civil Legal Needs project found more than 80 per cent of people surveyed found lawyers somewhat or very helpful when they retained them to deal with a legal problem.

“People who use lawyers generally feel good about the experience but a lot of people can’t afford lawyers anymore,” Murphy said.

“We should think about innovative ways to make sure the public can get access to those services, especially the middle class who are being squeezed between high-end lawyers at big Bay Street law firms and the cost of services for basic things. If we get quality and access right and that is all we can do, then that is all we should do.”

It’s small-firm practitioners that most members of the public turn to when searching for legal services, according to law society Treasurer Laurie Pawlitza, who called them the “face of our profession in Ontario.”

Sole and small-firm practitioners account for about 12,000, or more than half, of the 23,500 private practitioners in Ontario, while 86 per cent of all firms in the province contain five lawyers or less, according to Pawlitza. There were 450 of them at this year’s conference, plus another 200 watching an online webcast of the proceedings.

They also provide the vast majority of legal aid services and offer almost all legal assistance in languages other than English, French or Italian.

“You’re also the most likely to come from the most diverse backgrounds and so you’re able to help and address the cultural and linguistic needs of Ontarians,” Pawlitza said. “I’m truly proud of all of you and what you do.”

Despite having never practised at a small firm, she said she got insight through the difficulties her husband faced as a sole practitioner.

“It was not an easy time for him, and he’s not necessarily the best businessman,” she said. “There’s an entire skill set that you need to run a small firm or to be a sole practitioner, and not everybody has it.”

Pawlitza said she hoped the conference and other continuing professional development courses now mandated by the law society would help foster the creativity and innovation small-firm practitioners need to succeed.

“Our job is to regulate the profession in the public interest and facilitate access to justice,” she said. “If we can help you help the public, then we’re doing our job and you can keep doing yours.”

  • Gerry M.
    The over-working of files as informally mandated willy nilly by the law society is the greater barrier to access to justice for ordinary folk. Giben the society's endless pursuit of plaintiff's counsel over small easily solvable complaints from worried and isolated plaintiffs, without understanding what's happening on the ground, ends up shutting many more out of the legal system, as once harrassed by the regulator, these lawyers often feel they must now cut ties with modest cliets they otherwise would have helped, or risk their careers We need a different kind of regulator that can actually enhance access to justice, not destroy it! A kindly lawyer might help 100 people a year who otherwise would have no access to justice. The regulator's bite, especially given Ontario's remaining substantial admin. law deficits, can easily move several thousand people out in the cold for no good reason. We need regulation, not this.
  • Victor Fletcher
    After 2 years to settle a family estate and having to deal with 4 lawyers (one of whom quit over conflict-of-interest) the problem all related to a badly-made will and lack of proper liaison with my deceased uncle.
    I had to call police twice to get relief from a threatening relative. It all cost the estate $30,000 and my time.
    Yes, when people are in crises they need a lawyer but usable hands-on advice is not available.
    $350 and $400 an hour fees didn't help me either!!
    Victor / Toronto Street News
  • Matt
    I agree with Mr. Murphy. The only people the legal profession are important to are themselves and those who can afford their services. Legal Aid charges $80/hour - which is cheap - but there income cut-off is often at or even below minimum wage. The only way to pay legal fees is to leverage existing assets (ie. selling your car, house, etc.) Until access to justice becomes affordable - lawyers will always be overpriced for a service the average person will not understand. And frankly, it is a service that is largely reliant on the subjective opinion of a single human being (or 5 at the most). So I agree - don't try to excuse public perception. If you've made a deal with the Devil - live with it. If you feel guilty about it, do something to redeem yourself.
  • Victoria Lehman
    Sadly, Tim Murphy sells the profession short, a significant part of our problem, regarding which we must continue to be vigilant. In fact, with the greatedst respect to corporte and other transaction-related lawyers and the functions that they fulfill, there are many lawyers who do save lives. Consider those of us who work in the human rights, criminal justice, etc., and the fundamental ethical and human rights that lawyers address every day. Consider also the potential carnage were we to return (as is happening in many countries today, on every continent) should the Rule of Law, which we defend and protect, sometimes with the risk of our health and safety, break down. After 30 years of being subject to the naysayers, it would be refreshing to see something positive about our vocation. Havng our professional bodies and associations consulting with public relations professionals should not be considered a frivolous undertaking, and should be encouraged and funded.
  • Time
    I would rather see a law society that was highly competyent in administrative law, conducted itself ethically, and which didn't have a long history of hiding decisions where Ontario lawyers beat it before its tribunals. This issue will not go away until it is dealt with, by doing what happens to all failed institutions in Canada - replacement with a new competent ethical regulator that will promote access to real justice. With 95% of cases settling, most can be taken on with precious little in the way of an up-front payment.
    Having a nasty, unschooled regulator in the wings ready to pounce on idealistic capable competent lawyers, is always a recipe for injustice to percolate throughout the system. Fairness is key. Competence is required.
  • Peter OFlaherty
    I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Lehman. The Canadian legal profession is often critically important to the lives and fortunes of ordinary people. Furthermore, having guaranteed access to an independent justice system is a fundamental safeguard and a key aspect of our peaceful society. There is much to be proud of in the work we do and as far as I am concerned most of the negative image issues Mr. Murphy mentions are the by-product of uninformed comment.
  • Rose
    It seems Mr. Murphy is completely disconnected from the world the majority of Canadians live. The poor masses are sick and tired of being helpless. Their families and lives are being destroyed for want of legal services. Their constitutional rights to access justice and live dignity are denied.
    The odius practices of law society have debased the entire constitutional law and judicial sysyem and vulgarised the doctrine of democracy. The lawyers like Murphy are judged by the value of their cars and judges are making news for wrong reasons.
    Why ignite wars in a profession where blissful ignorance reigns? When law enforcement and courts are dysfunctional and legal service becomes impossible the people of just society have no choice but to become the law, judge and executioners themslves. The security and future of a nation depends on respecting consitutional rights of its citizens.
    See the mayhem - meet homeless VETERANS and YOUTH in streets and ask their plan.
  • Anonymouse
    One good action is better than hundred good thoughts
  • anonymous
    "Nothing moves without motive" my friend

    No money no funny name of the game.................
  • Walter Fox
    After 30 years of trying through the Law Society to have a part in curing all social ills , its not surprising that our image has morphed and become muddied. Legal Aid, overcrowding in the profession, and Family Law have hurt us maybe beyond repair, with no sensible solution any where in sight.
  • Linda Locke
    It's never too late to protect your reputation. If you are facing significant obstacles to doing business on behalf of your clients as a result of negative public perceptions, then you should address it, and there are tools to help you. Clearly your clients hold you in esteem and maybe that's enough. But if you are being regulated unfairly, it's time to tell the story of your value - in a new way. It may be too late for BP, but not for the legal profession.
  • Anonymous
    “We should think about innovative ways to make sure the public can get access to those services, especially the middle class who are being squeezed between high-end lawyers at big Bay Street law firms and the cost of services for basic things. If we get quality and access right and that is all we can do, then that is all we should do.”

    So what is the timetable on helping people without the income to hire high end lawyers? As usual a good thought but no action will be followed. Meaningless...
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