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Where have all the lawyers gone?

Recent election continues profession’s decline at Queen’s Park
|Written By Yamri Taddese

Recent trends suggest the law and politics no longer go hand in glove in Ontario as fewer lawyers are pursuing provincial politics and entering elected office.

Business pressures and society’s growing apathy may be among the reasons fewer lawyers are running for office, says Todd McCarthy. Photo: Robin Kuniski

When only 12 lawyers won seats at Queen’s Park in 2011, the Ontario Bar Association called it an apparent low in recent history and noted the dearth of legal expertise among the province’s lawmakers.

After the recent provincial election, there will now be just seven lawyers in the legislature and none of the newly elected MPPs hold law degrees. What’s more, the OBA says, this is the first time in the post-Second World War era that at least one lawyer isn’t among the major party leaders in Ontario.

“Occupational diversity in the legislature is a good thing,” says OBA spokesman Greg Crone.

“For example, teachers, farmers, and doctors all bring a valuable and unique outlook. But what is lost with fewer lawyers in the legislature is the legal perspective. Non-lawyers might not immediately understand the full impact of court decisions. Non-lawyers might not immediately foresee the multiple consequences a single legislative change might bring.”

After a dozen lawyers won in the 2011 provincial election, a few resignations brought the number of them to eight just before the recent campaign began in May.

In this election, a non-lawyer Liberal replaced John Gerretsen, a former attorney general of Ontario, as MPP for Kingston and the Islands.

That left the house with Liberal lawyers Lorenzo Berardinetti, David Zimmer, Bob Chiarelli, Madeleine Meilleur, and Yasir Naqvi among the government caucus. Liberal MPP Steven Del Duca has a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School but was never called to the bar in Ontario.

The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh and Progressive Conservative party’s Christine Elliott are the sole elected MPPs from the legal profession among their respective parties. Elliott is the wife of late federal finance minister Jim Flaherty and a co-founder of tort and accident benefit litigation firm Flaherty Dow Elliott & McCarthy LLP.

Elliott’s law partner Todd McCarthy, a Progressive Conservative, ran for office in the June 12 election in Ajax-Pickering but lost to Liberal incumbent Joe Dickson.

“There’s no question that lawyers as candidates and lawyers as elected members of provincial and federal parliaments has been on a steady decline for the last two to three decades,” says McCarthy.

But for his part, McCarthy, who had previously run in a provincial election, says he’s ready to hit the campaign trail again in 2018.

“It would be great to take a break for a couple of years and focus on the practice of law . . . but I believe in the system and in the majesty of democracy as much as I ever did and I’d be honoured to run again,” he says.

In total, 22 lawyers ran in the recent election, including the seven who won their seats, according to the OBA.

That’s 22 lawyers among 321 candidates who ran for the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, and the NDP.

“That’s a very small number,” says Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP counsel and Conservative fundraiser Ralph Lean, who notes he himself has never had a desire to run for elected office.

“Growing up, your prime ministers and premiers were heavily lawyers and your cabinet ministers were lawyers.

[Pierre] Trudeau was a lawyer, [Dalton] McGuinty was a lawyer, John Tory was a lawyer, [Brian] Mulroney was a lawyer, Bob Rae was a lawyer,” he says.

Former premiers Ernie Eves, David Peterson, and Bill Davis are all lawyers as well.

According to Elizabeth Hall, the OBA’s director of policy and public affairs, “lawyers are disappearing from campaign offices across the country” as well.

“Twenty-four years ago, when I first leant my considerable envelope-stuffing and stamp-licking expertise to a political campaign, you could not walk into a campaign office without knocking over a lawyer,” wrote Hall in 2011.

“At the time, all three party leaders in both the federal and provincial houses were lawyers and Attorneys General [Roy] McMurtry then [Ian] Scott sat with their premiers on the front benches of the Ontario legislature. To that point, every premier and prime minister in my lifetime had been a lawyer.

“A quarter century later, it is not unusual for me and my coerced husband to be the only lawyers in our local campaign office.”

So, what’s driving lawyers out of politics? “That’s a very good question,” says Lean, who notes it’s hard to say whether the decline is accidental or part of a greater shift. Being a lawyer used to be an advantage for candidates, he says, but there are fewer role models now for those who want to get into politics.

McCarthy says change in the legal profession itself could be a reason for the decline in political involvement.

“I think perhaps the practice of law has become so much more of a business these days — whether you’re with a boutique firm, a large firm or in sole practice — that it’s very difficult to find the time to devote to a campaign or preparation for a campaign, to take a leave of absence from practice,” he says.

The other explanation, he suggests, is that lawyers aren’t immune from growing political apathy and the decline in voter turnout over the last couple of decades.

“You’ve got people viewing politics with disdain, and so lawyers are no different from other segments of society [that say], ‘It’s not worth it,’ when in fact, as a candidate, I can tell you it is indeed a high calling and a noble pursuit just to be among the candidates for the 107 seats in our provincial parliament,” he says.

According to Crone, the fact that fewer lawyers are running in and winning elections is likely the result of a societal shift towards being more open to having diverse professions in office. “And that’s not a bad thing,” says Crone.

“It’s just the way it is.”

For its part, the OBA says fewer lawyers in the legislature mean an increased responsibility on its part to monitor activities at Queen’s Park and flag any concerns from a legal standpoint. At the OBA, “a giant committee of lawyers” probes proposed laws and regulations, says Crone.

“The OBA is playing a more important role than ever. We keep a close eye on new bills and regulations both with a view to protecting the profession and protecting the public. The OBA is often the first to raise serious concerns about a proposed law or policy shift. The government listens to us.”

He notes the OBA pushed for three items in Premier Kathleen Wynne’s May 2 budget: increasing legal aid funding, improvements to family law, and a new Toronto courthouse.

  • Michele Ballagh
    I understand from a senior practitioner who used to be involved in municipal politics that another reason lawyers are walking away from politics is that holding elected office used to be a part-time commitment at the municipal level at least and they could maintain their law practice at the same time. Now, a municipal politician in a city of any size is a full-time commitment with an uncertain future. I imagine that the required commitment is even greater at the provincial and federal level.
  • Jana Schilder
    Hi Yamri,

    Yes, lack of lawyers at both Queen's Park and Ottawa is a serious problem. Change starts with legislation, either new or re-drafted. Non-lawyers usually have trouble with the drafting part, which usually results in poorly drafted legislation that is not as tight as it should be and therefore does not stand up to legal tests.

    Lack of legal precision, lack of anticipating loopholes, and lack of knowing what laws are already on the books--those are the biggest problems from lack of lawyers.

    Canadians suffer as a result. There is only so much legislation that is passed in every session. Much of it ends up abandoned.

    Over at The Toronto Star, Susan Delacourt wrote an article about this a while ago. It is worth reading.
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