Law Society divided over how to help lawyers, paralegals struggling amid COVID-19

Chair of the audit and finance committee Joseph Groia says assistance should target those impacted

Law Society divided over how to help lawyers, paralegals struggling amid COVID-19
Joseph Groia

The closure of courts and tribunals and COVID-19’s weight on the economy has put a financial squeeze on many private practitioners and paralegals, and there is a clash within the Law Society of Ontario on how best to address the needs of affected licensees.

On Sept. 24, Convocation voted to table a motion brought by Benchers Marian Lippa and Geoff Pollock, that would have the LSO reduce annual fees by 25 per cent for 2021. The proposed fee cut was an effort to help cushion the “devastating impact” many licensees were experiencing, Pollock told Law Times.

Chair of the audit and finance committee Joseph Groia disagreed with Lippa’s and Pollock’s motion. Groia says the Law Society must be more targeted in its approach.

“It's a clash of regulatory responses,” says Groia. “As a society, I guess we have three choices. We can help nobody. We can help those who need the help and we can help them at a level – I would hope – that would be much greater than 25 per cent, although that's obviously a decision that the committee and convocation will make. Or we can just give money back to the entire profession.”

The final option – represented by the 25-per-cent-cut motion – “doesn't strike me as the kind of targeted, compassionate, appropriate response to help those people who need to be helped,” he says.

In giving his thoughts on possible financial relief efforts for struggling licensees, Groia told Law Times he was giving his personal views and not speaking as chair of the audit and finance committee.

Groia says in his discussions with various Benchers he has come up with a number of options for assisting licensees experiencing financial hardship. The LSO could reduce or eliminate fees for licensees who have seen their practices dwindle because of the pandemic. The LSO could develop a program that would allow select lawyers to be relieved of some of their LawPRO premiums. The LSO could set up a subsidiary, which would lend money to practitioners who need funds to tide them over until their practices pick up.

But to use LSO revenues to give an across-the-board discount to every lawyer in the province – when many work for the government and many others work in-house for large corporations who pay their fees for them – would provide an enormous windfall to those who don’t need it, says Groia.

Groia adds that the majority of letters and emails the Law Society received were from lawyers suffering because the courts were closed and that unless there is another shutdown, fortunes may soon improve for many in the profession.

“So now the courts are open again, you hope that those clients will come back, and that work will come back,” Groia says.

Groia notes that fees in Ontario are lower than in other provinces and because the LSO runs LawPRO, a not-for-profit insurance agency, the insurance dues of lawyers in the province are “dramatically lower” as well. Last year, Ontario lawyers paid $2950 for coverage, whereas Alberta’s paid $3,300 and Quebec’s paid $4,000, he says.

“There's unquestionably a group of benchers, who see it as part of their mandate to do whatever they can to cause fees to go down,” says Groia. “And I don't have a problem with that. In my view, the Law Society needs to be asking what it does and how it does it.”

“But where I depart from them is, I believe you start from the bottom up. You say, ‘What do we have to do to protect the public? How do we best do that? What's it going to cost us?’ And then fees will be determined once you've set out in very clear and precise detail the job you have to do.”

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