With high stakes in the Law Society of Upper Canada’s conversation about alternative business structures, Ontario solicitors are looking to boost their voice in the upcoming bencher elections given that there are just a handful of them on the regulator’s governing body.
That’s why there’s a movement underway to get out the solicitor vote in the election scheduled for the spring.
According to a 2009 law society governance task force report, barristers have consistently outnumbered solicitors by more than five to one among elected benchers in the last four elections even though the latter represent 30 per cent of all lawyers.
And now several organizations, including the County & District Law Presidents’ Association and the County of Carleton Law Association, will be recruiting solicitors throughout the fall and trying to convince them to run for a seat at Convocation.
“It has come up that we really aren’t represented very fully as benchers,” says Nancy Johnson, chairwoman of the County of Carleton Law Association’s real estate lawyers committee.
The law association, along with CDLPA, will create a network of solicitors who will receive communication about the lack of representation on the law society’s governing board, says Johnson. The organizations will also approach solicitors to run for bencher positions while also trying to find out why they have chosen not to in the past.
With alternative business structures on the law society’s radar and the looming possibility of non-lawyer ownership of law firms, solicitors are looking to have a stronger voice. For starters, they say the consideration of alternative business structures is more about an access to justice problem they had no role in creating.
“We don’t feel our clients have an access to justice issue,” says Johnson.
“We tend to give very good service to our clients at a pretty reasonable price. So we are, for many of them, an entry point for the legal system and we tend to be often local and we just don’t feel that having other shareholders to be answerable to is going to improve anything for our clients.”
She adds: “We haven’t been able to appreciate what the concern is so far that this is designed to cure. We’re not clear on how [alternative business structures are] beneficial to our clients because in many respects, we feel we’re already there.”
With recent high-profile real estate fraud investigations like the Meerai Cho matter, a case in which $14 million in condo deposit fees went missing, part of the concern for solicitors is an “overreaction” to such situations, says Michael Ras, director of public affairs for CDLPA.
“Solicitors are nervous about an overreaction of regulation on that, less from the law society and more from what the province could do,” he says.
“They’re wary of those things, and I think having more solicitors [at the law society] with a tempered and professional perspective will help in those discussions.”
Cho’s arrest on fraud charges last month has once again revived discussions about whether the law society should require dual signatures on trust accounts. According to Ras, the idea is a concern for many solicitors, lots of whom are sole practitioners. “A lot of solicitors I’ve spoken to say, ‘Yeah, that probably makes sense.’ And a lot of other solicitors I’ve spoken to say, ‘Wait a second. I’m a sole practitioner and real estate deals will disappear from me.’”
Many solicitors feel their small numbers at Convocation mean the regulator doesn’t fully appreciate what their day-to-day practice involves, Ras notes. “What I understand in speaking with them is that they don’t feel that the law society fully appreciates the challenges the solicitor bar is facing and particularly the real estate bar in their day-to-day business dealings. And so regulatory matters, for example, that the law society might consider don’t fully appreciate the challenges. So the nuance of regulation might be lost in that.”
Solicitors who are members of Convocation are already busy with the many committees seeking their perspective, Ras notes, adding it’s difficult for them to meet the demands with vigorous input at all of those groups.
Johnson says perhaps what solicitors need is a guaranteed number of seats at Convocation, as is the case with paralegals. While there hasn’t been a discussion at the Carleton law association on how many designated seats would be appropriate for solicitors, “I think we would like to see that,” she says.
The focus now is to raise awareness among solicitors, she adds. “They aren’t aware that we’re underrepresented at Convocation. They aren’t aware that paralegals have guaranteed seats at the table, and we believe that our views should be represented when decisions are being made.”
While there’s little or no research on the reasons for the scarcity of solicitors at Convocation, the speculation is that the workload involved in being a bencher dissuades potential solicitor candidates whose transactional jobs require them to be physically present at their practice.
Part of the problem is also voter apathy, says Ras, who calls the 37-per-cent voter turnout in the last law society election “appalling.”
If more solicitors vote, they’ll naturally “gravitate towards voting for other solicitors,” he says. “And I think that will address some of the imbalance that’s on Convocation.”
In the meantime, the Ontario Bar Association will also be providing resources to all lawyers in Ontario who run for bencher positions.
“I think it’s important that we have the full range at the table,” says OBA treasurer Doug Downey. “I’d like to see more people in general.”
For background, see "Do solicitors get a fair shake?"