Here come the orderlies

This Law Times article, about changes made in 2006 to Ontario’s Law Society Act that have suddenly galvanized lawyers in the province, makes for an interesting read. Those amendments brought paralegals (non-lawyers providing limited legal services) under the regulatory authority of the law society, which now refers to both lawyers and paralegals as its “licensees” and administers a modified (some say less stringent) form of the barrister’s oath to both sets of legal service providers.

Last week, these changes prompted a motion before the law society’s annual general meeting. It urged that the law society’s bylaws be amended to once again refer to lawyers as “lawyers” and “members” rather than “licensees,” to restore the traditional barrister’s oath and not administer it to paralegals, and to never do something like this again without full-scale consultation with lawyers. Students of Canadian history might appreciate the fact that the motion passed by a vote of 54-40.

I’m not taking a position one way or another on the motion’s merits, because I’m far more interested in the language used by the lawyers to describe their concerns. What’s at play here is more significant than semantics — it’s an illustration of the visceral reactions provoked when members of a group long accustomed to exclusivity and privilege suddenly find those characteristics slipping away.

From the motion: “[I]t is demeaning to lawyers to be treated as a class of licensee.”

From the article: [The lawyer who brought the motion] was disturbed by the “watering down” of access to justice aspects of the barristers’ oath, and that “it’s now a licensees’ oath.” She says other professions would not permit similar changes to their own oaths. “Neither engineers nor doctors would dream of changing the language so that technicians and orderlies and the like could swear the same thing.”

From the article: A lawyer who identified herself as a provincial offences prosecutor said she’s been disturbed by a recent trend of justices of the peace referring to paralegals as “officers of the court” or “friends of the court.” “We are no longer a profession,” she said. “I think it’s a mistake.”

The distinction being drawn here between professionals on the one hand, and “technicians and orderlies and the like” on the other, couldn’t be any clearer. Status matters — a lot — to lawyers, and for some, the normalization of relations with non-lawyer service providers threatens to diminish that status. As non-lawyers continue to pour into lawyers’ traditional marketplace in the years to come, we’re going to see vivid illustrations of the lengths lawyers will go to in order to preserve that status. And we’re going to finally see, forced out into the open, a debate about what it really, actually means to be a lawyer.

A law society bencher, lamenting what she viewed as a failure to communicate to lawyers the effect of paralegals’ integration into the law society, said: “Nobody seems to clearly understand what we are and what we aren’t.” Indeed.

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