Outgoing President’s Message by Anne Kirker, QC
It has been an extraordinary honour serving as President of the Law Society, and to have had the opportunity over the years to work with so many intelligent, thoughtful and committed people.
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has observed that:
“Canadians are privileged to live in a peaceful country. Much of our collective sense of freedom and safety comes from our community’s commitment to a few key values: democratic governance, respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law, and accommodation of difference. …”
She’s right, and among the institutions that sustain these values stands the legal profession. The integrity of the administration of justice depends upon the unique role of lawyers in our society. We serve in a wide variety of ways – as advisors, advocates, educators, politicians, reformers, and bureaucrats, and some go on to serve as judges as well.
Our participation in guiding and defining the legal system – the system that provides the underpinning for our democracy, the rights and freedoms of our citizens, and the environment in which we do business and commerce – is vital.
Together, we all have the privilege and the responsibility to understand the forces of change and to help lead the profession in responding to it in the public interest; to promote and support access to justice and respect for the rule of law.
There is no denying that we find ourselves in a time of unprecedented change – a reality that the Benchers and Law Society are acutely aware.
On September 16, 1907,144 lawyers became the first members of the Law Society of Alberta. It was a time when lawyers were among the only people in our society who knew how to find legal information and who served the legal needs of the community.
Fast forward to the present, and much has changed.
Today, we have almost 10,000 active practicing lawyers in Alberta. Approximately 3700 of those are over 50 years old. While the baby boomers retire, younger lawyers are leaving the profession at a concerning rate, which is why the Law Society is working hard on retention and re-engagement initiatives.
Of the currently active practising lawyers, approximately 6500 are in private practice. Of those, 1200 are sole practitioners and 1800 work in firms of 10 lawyers or less. This group of 3000 lawyers is an important group from the Law Society’s perspective as well because these are the lawyers who most often serve the needs of individual Albertans. They do important work and it is in the public interest that the Law Society do what it can to support them in meeting the demands of professional practice.
We also know that as a new generation of lawyers moves into the profession, they face different challenges than many more senior practitioners did, and they bring different values and expectations and different ideas and skill sets, informed by the world they grew up in.
And in that world, nothing is forcing change more than the unrelenting pace of technological innovation. Technology is having a significant impact on the legal profession just as it is in other professions and businesses. With seemingly unlimited and immediate access to information and a rise in the do-it-yourself attitude and resources, we see traditional ways of doing things increasingly challenged.
Economically, we see borders coming down, – except perhaps the borders to the south of us – and we see the haves and have-nots growing further apart. On what can broadly be described as the corporate law side of things, law firms are consolidating to meet the changing needs of clients nationally and internationally, and they, like all lawyers, find themselves challenged by an increasing commoditization of the services upon which their business models were built. Services lawyers traditionally provided are now more readily available elsewhere and often at a lower price.
In other words, where lawyers alone once existed, a variety of alternatives have entered, and as business models change to adapt to this new reality, a shrinking number of practitioners are increasingly called upon to help meet the needs of individual clients in the areas of family law, civil disputes, residential real estate, immigration and criminal law, as examples. In the transition, many in need of legal advice and counsel – services only lawyers can provide – are left behind.
We are not alone in tackling these challenges of change. Our colleagues across the country and around the world are also grappling with these issues, and so too are governments, the judiciary and legal educators.
As I finish my term as President, I am more confident than ever in the Law Society’s strategic and proactive direction and in the profession’s ability to rise to challenge.
As former President, Jim Eamon, QC (as he then was), observed:
“The regulation of the legal profession has always evolved to ensure that processes and standards remain current, fair and defensible. This long standing evolution impacts most of our regulatory framework. Over the years, changes have been made in many areas.
All these changes are directed at protecting the core values of our professional regulation, including ensuring that the legal profession continues to be independently regulated and that the public’s confidence in the legal profession is maintained. These values are fundamental to ensuring the collective and individual public trust that is needed for lawyers to continue discharging their unique and fundamental role in the administration of justice.”
And so we will move forward, incrementally, and sometimes imperfectly, but forward nonetheless.
Thank you all for giving me the opportunity to serve and for the important parts you play; for your engagement, your leadership and your contributions to a respectful discourse.