Life after lawyers

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We need to start thinking about what the post-lawyer justice system is going to look like.

I can see how this might be an absurd or even heretical notion to some people. But there’s reason to believe that lawyers won’t be an essential part of the legal system in the future — and if so, our profession has to come to grips with what would mean, for us and for society generally.

I’m thinking about this because we’re preparing our cover story for National’s June issue, on the problems faced by family courts across Canada (and quite likely, in other jurisdictions) caused by self-represented litigants. if you’ve been inside one of these courts lately, you know what these problems are: backlogged dockets, mistreated witnesses, judges obliged to act as de facto counsel, wasted court time — and paying clients in the middle of it, wondering why they bothered to hire a lawyer since their spouse is doing nicely without one.

But here’s the problem: it’s been like this for more than a decade. We wrote about the pro se crisis in an October 1999 cover story titled “Who needs a lawyer?” (Sorry, no link — this was the Pleistocene Era, Net-wise.) And at a certain point, crisis becomes commonplace: we simply adjust to it. I think we’re perilously close to that stage in family law right now — people are getting used to the idea that family justice is a lawyer-optional event.

I’m coming to think that family law is the canary in the coal mine. Every day, more things that used to be the exclusive bailiwick of lawyers are automated, down-marketed and commoditized by non-lawyers. You already know this if your practice involves transactional matters like wills and real estate. But the pro se trend in family court shows that litigators aren’t immune either — as if the rise of mediation didn’t make that clear years ago.

We still talk about how we can “fix the problem” of people going without legal representation. But there are two big elephants in the room that few lawyers seem interested in talking about. The first is that the cost of retaining our services makes us largely inaccessible to all but the rich and the very poor, and that as long as we operate in a rarefied, self-regulated, protected marketplace, those costs are not going to fall.

The second is that a family court system with fewer lawyers and more self-represented parties is, no question, slow, inefficient, lopsided and chaotic. But you know what? It still works. Courtrooms still open their doors every morning, support is still mandated, and custody is still awarded — with or without lawyers’ involvement. We should be extremely nervous about the message that’s sending to the general population about just how indispensable we really are.

Lawyers are now a luxury good, but we increasingly deal in commoditized services. If you want to know where that disconnect leads, drop by your local family court sometime.

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