20 years later – Reflections of a 1996 Call on Change!

This month marks 20 years since I was called to the Bar in 1996. As it happens, we are marking the 20th anniversary of milestones in the legal community with far greater significance, and I want to highlight just a few of those as they reflect the many ways in which the legal profession of today is different and better than the one I joined almost a generation ago.

The harbingers of change in the air when I was called to the Bar in 1996 include the following:
1) PBSC – In 1996, Pro Bono Students Canada was founded to create more of a systemic response to access to justice challenges. Beginning at the University of Toronto with lead funding from the Law Foundation of Ontario, PBSC quickly grew, and now has a chapter in all 21 Law School in Canada. I was privileged to be on hand in May this Spring when the 20th anniversary celebration took over the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Convocation Hall. Law students from across the country joined with lawyers, judges and academics to reflect on the thousands of clients who have benefitted from PBSC. PBSC, together with champions of pro bono and public interest projects across Canadian Law Schools has changed the perspectives, expectations and experiences of a generation of Canadian law students.

2) Inclusion – when I graduated from Law School and began my career as a lawyer, there were still easily identifiable ethnic firms – particularly, in Toronto, firms primarily identified with the Jewish community. These arose in Toronto as a response to the exclusion of Jewish lawyers from opportunities at other firms, but by the 1980s and 1990s, the rationale for such firms had largely fallen away. By the mid-1990s, the sense of exclusion was being felt by this time not by Jewish lawyers but rather by lawyers from a host of other communities (in 1995, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL) formed to address just this experience of exclusion, followed in later years by the South Asian Bar Association, the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers and others).

3) Lifelong Learning- in 1996, Osgoode opened the doors to Osgoode Professional Development (OPD), which offered part-time professional LL.M. degrees along with what we then called continuing legal education (CLE) and now refer to as continuing professional development (CPD). The Ontario Bar Association, Advocates Society, Law Society and other providers all developed and expanded such programs while the National Judicial Institute and Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice pioneered educational programming for Canada’s judiciary. The idea is a simple but radical one – given that law is always evolving and never static, a qualified lawyer or judge needs to be continually learning. But those in the midst of careers learn differently than those looking to start their career – and so OPD, NJI and other CPD providers have become catalysts for innovation both in pedagogy and professional education. Similarly significant, many of those seeking out OPD today are professionals from broader fields without legal training. These broader professionals may need a specific certificate in a legal context (for example, a certificate in labour law for an HR professional, or in mental health law for a social worker) or just a day or two highlighting issues of importance (for example, a conference on education law for school principals). Legal education has now expanded vertically over the entirety of a legal professional’s career, and horizonally to include broader professionals from diverse fields.

4) Tech Transformation – I remember hearing my parents talk about living through the first on their block to get a TV and thinking “How old can they possibly be?” Now, my teenagers look at me that way when I recall being at law firms to see the shift from electric typewriters (with erasable cartridges!) to PCs, and being one of the last lawyers (ever?) to learn how to use the CEDs or Cases Judicially Considered to note up a decision.  While I was embarking on my journey as a lawyer in 1996, Google was invented as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Stanford University. Legal services remain among the most elusive to truly transformational disruption (but it’s coming!).

5) Access to Justice – A2J was a niche interest when I began my career – a concern to poverty and clinic lawyers, to family lawyers (already) – and to policy makers. In 1996, former Osgoode Hall Law School Dean John McCamus was appointed to look into the future of legal aid, which resulted both in the formation of Legal Aid Ontario, but also the idea that access to justice is a core aspect of poverty reduction, determinants of health and economic opportunity. In other words, accessible justice is not only a distinct obligation of the legal profession but also a priority of public policy. The idea that A2J was a crisis, or a disruptive force in the design and delivery of legal services was still a far way away idea. Today, it has become an undisputed rallying cry. The debate has shifted to action – whether in the form of expanded access to mediation, informal and alternative dispute resolution, simplified rules for courts and tribunals, on-line civil dispute resolution, expanded paralegal regulation, organized pro bono efforts, more innovative roles for legal aid clinics and new funding for legal aid certificates.

Just as I am struck by how much has shifted in the life of a lawyer over the past 20 years, some areas remains surprisingly resilient – from the billable hour to the adversarial system of dispute resolution. There is a fine line between resistance to change and adherence to tradition. The culture of lawyering remains easily recognizable twenty years on whereas these last two decades represent an eon in other cultures (think broadcasting, journalism or music publishing). I look forward to congratulating the remarkable newly minted lawyers joining 2016’s Call to the Bar this coming week, and can’t wait to hear their reflections in 2036 on where the profession has gone in the next 20 years!