Lawyers are Losing Their Authority
Lawyers are losing their authority, but that’s a good thing.
I used to be in sales. Despite the lack of status, I managed to pay the bills and provide for my family. In those days, when I communicated in person or by phone with company representatives or government bodies, they treated me with indifference. That’s just how things worked. I wasn’t anyone important, so I got the “regular” treatment; the company or government representative handled my request/complaint in the manner which required the least amount of work.
I then went to law school. Other than obtaining a degree, I was still the same person. Yet, now when I communicate with companies or government bodies (either professionally or personally), I get the “Premium” service. This means that they return my calls or emails promptly and representatives go the extra mile to ensure my needs are met.
While I was surprised at how differently I was treated at first, when I thought about it, I was not surprising. Lawyers are intimidating. Everyone reacts when the receive a call or a letter from a lawyer.
Lawyers occupy a place of privilege because the general public sees us\them as knowing the law more than most.
While this is true (thankfully!) most of the time, it is not always accurate. Individual lawyers cannot know all laws. Too many exist, and many of them are very complex.
Now, many non-lawyers are more knowledgeable in some areas of expertise. For example, farmers are more familiar with the laws and regulations around food handling safety and security than most lawyers. This is a specialty area. Only a few lawyers in every jurisdiction are familiar with these. The list goes on. HR managers at large manufacturing facilities are more familiar with the laws around workers compensation.
The lawyer I replaced (he retired), told me when I was taking over his practice that preparing mortgage documents used to involve a few pages of documents when he started in the 70’s. Now mortgages often require over 100 pages of documents.
Everything has become more complicated and complex. Lawyers, who were the experts on everything, now find themselves turning to non-lawyers in specialized fields for guidance.
Governments have known this for awhile. The proof is that they often create administrative bodies to adjudicate disputes in specialized areas. While a lawyer may sit on the panel of adjudicators, adjudicators are typically people who worked in the area and developed expertise in the area. Lawyers are only involved to ensure the process is fair.
For example, the Government of Manitoba listed the following description of the expertise required for a member of the Land Value Appraisal Commission:
Legal knowledge would be an asset, but is not essential. Real-estate and property assessment knowledge. Thorough knowledge of the legislation pertaining to the matters at issue. Strong analytical skills and the ability to prepare complex and lengthy written decisions that may be challenged in the Court.
As you can see, the government does not require legal knowledge.
This is all very interesting, but what does this mean for the profession and you?
I believe the profession is going through an identity crisis. Many lawyers started practicing when things were not so complex. They “grew up” as the trusted and feared lawyer. His (I say his because the older generation are predominantly men) opinion on all matters was respected.
I don’t mean to say that the general public no longer respects his opinion. After all, as previously stated, everyone reacts to a lawyer letter. Rather, I argue that lawyers no longer have the monopoly on legal knowledge.
In fact, as pointed out above, lawyers are not the experts.
Other professionals, such as accountants, architects, and engineers know more about the laws and regulations that affect them. Business owners are more and more sophisticated. Individuals who buy homes are more informed.
With the information age upon us and with everything available on the internet, legal knowledge is no longer within the exclusive realm of lawyers. Prior to the internet, lawyers had to purchase very expensive report subscriptions. They would have libraries of reported decisions for all levels of court. The publisher then sent out a new volume to add to the collection when the courts provided enough new decisions.
Now, most reported decisions are available for free on the internet. In Canada, you can view reported decision from any Canadian court at Canlii.org. This website has virtually removed the high cost of legal information.
Lawyers are facilitators rather than central players. Instead of being the authority on issues, the lawyer makes everything happen. We are the mechanism through which deals are made. Lawyers take marching orders from the sophisticated players who already know the general rules. We tweak, consider and advise on risk, and make sure money changes hands.
While many of the old guard feel that the “noble” profession is loosing its place in society, I believe the change is quite frankly, overdue. Lawyers should still have a place at the table, but it should be on the sidelines.
So, now you know the profession is in a state of flux. What does that mean for you?
This depends to some degree on the area of law that affects you. If you are facing criminal charges, you want an experienced and successful lawyer. This may be the exception to the rule above. In business transactions, lawyers with inflated egos will likely interfere in the process, as they attempt to remain central to the process. In criminal defence, most top defence lawyers occupy that position because of the size of their ego. You need a healthy ego to stare down the Crown attorney’s office, judges, and juries who want to convict.
However, in most other areas, including litigation, I believe my view holds true. You’ve undoubtably heard the expression that in complex litigation, whether commercial or family, only the lawyers win.
The lawyer should not be an obstacle to surmount. Rather, lawyers should be the facilitators who help everyone achieve their goals.
You should ensure that your lawyer understands his or her role.
- Do they listen to you?
- Does he or she properly explain the legal jargon?
- Do they understand and recognize the expertise you bring to the table?
- Does he or she understand the goals you are trying to achieve?
While I wrote this post with the small business person’s challenges in mind, it applies quite generally. At the end of the day, you should feel like your lawyer assisted you, instead of bullying you.
Disclaimer – Legalese
I appreciate the irony of this disclaimer, but while I am critical of the rules, I must still play by them, so here goes….This article is presented for informational purposes only. The content does not constitute legal advice or solicitation and does not create a solicitor client relationship (this means that I am not your lawyer until we both agree that I am). If you are seeking advice on specific matters, please contact Philippe Richer at email@example.com, or 204.925.1900. We cannot consider any unsolicited information sent to the author as solicitor-client privileged (this means confidential).
Philippe Richer is President of TLR Law Group. TLR has been located in the St. Boniface neighbourhood, in Winnipeg, since 1996. The office serves the middle class and small business within the province. With a focus on estates, wills, real estate, and corporate law, he leads his team in providing accessible legal services. Philippe also authored the business law course for the Knowledge Bureau and instructed the français juridique class at the faculty of Law at the University of Manitoba.