Some days, Marla Miller’s phone just doesn’t stop ringing. People call her family law practice in Edmonton all day long, trying to find a lawyer to hire, but there aren’t any available. “We can’t even call them all back. We’re too busy,” says Miller, a collaborative family lawyer and mediator. “It’s really problematic. Even if someone has an emerging situation, or court pending, sometimes you just have to say, ‘Good luck, sorry. We’re not taking any more clients.’ ”
Miller’s office isn’t the only one fielding desperate calls. In Edmonton and Calgary, family lawyers are refusing to take on new cases, keeping closed client lists just as a family doctor would, says David Percy, dean of the University of Alberta law faculty. “We send out emails seeing if other lawyers are taking clients,” Miller says, but even if there are some available, “within two weeks, they’re booked up.” While Alberta’s boom has aggravated the situation, other parts of the country report they’re facing a lawyer shortage, too, especially rural areas.
For Percy, the root of the problem is clear. “In the last several years, there’s been a strong argument Canada does not graduate enough lawyers,” he says. Prevailing wisdom might suggest that fewer lawyers is a good thing, but observers worry it’s just the opposite, driving up the cost of legal services by restricting the number of people who can provide them. As with any other product, “the price of [legal services] is a function of supply and demand,” says Vern Krishna, a lawyer and law professor at the University of Ottawa. When it comes to lawyers, “we have a deliberately constrained supply,” he says. “Our law schools have shut their doors tight.”
Over the past 30 years, Canada’s population and its need for legal services has ballooned, yet the number of law students who graduate each year is “virtually unchanged,” notes Krishna. Today, Canada has 16 common law schools, the same number it had three decades ago, when the population was smaller by a third. While some schools have opened extra spaces, the impact has been minimal—in 2006, 2,973 law students were admitted to the profession, just 133 more than a decade before.
John G. Kelly runs Canada Law from Abroad, which links Canadian students with law schools in the U.K. He says Canada, with a population of over 33 million, has the lowest number of law schools per capita of any Commonwealth country: in a 2007 survey, he found that the U.K. has 75 law schools for a population of nearly 61 million, while Australia has 28 law schools, and 21 million people. Naturally, Canada also has a small supply of lawyers. Here, there’s about one lawyer or notary for every 421 people. In the U.S., it’s one lawyer for every 265 people.
It’s not that there aren’t enough Canadians who want to be lawyers: some faculties get 10 applicants per spot, or more. Getting accepted, then, is a fiercely competitive process. Even at schools that require just two years of undergraduate education to apply, it’s hard to find a student without a bachelor’s degree or higher. At the University of Toronto, where law students must have a B.A., almost one-quarter have a graduate degree, too. The median average for entrants is 85 per cent. “Academic standards to get into Canadian law schools are far higher than any other common law country I know of,” Percy says.
For the thousands of Canadians who don’t get accepted each year—many of whom, undoubtedly, would make perfectly fine lawyers—studying abroad is an attractive option, and foreign schools are only too happy to take them. Of the 750 law students at Bond University in Australia, over 100 are from Canada. The school even teaches Canadian constitutional law, and will begin offering Canadian corporate and tax law this year, “not because they’re fascinated by it; they’ve got a market,” says Krishna, executive director of the Federation of Law Societies’ accreditation committee, who notes that steps are now being taken to make it easier for foreign-trained lawyers to practise here. About 200 qualify to work here each year, including Canadians who have studied abroad.
Getting a degree is, of course, just one step to becoming a lawyer. Provincial law societies (lawyers’ self-regulating bodies) require new graduates complete a bar admission course and articling period, yet both vary in length across the country (the course is six months in Alberta, but just six weeks in Nova Scotia; articling requirements vary from six months to a year). This suggests “entry requirements may have been set, in some instances, at a higher than necessary level,” further restricting the lawyer supply, notes a 2007 report from the federal Competition Bureau. (A response report prepared for the law societies dismissed this as “trivial,” in part because lawyers can move between provinces.)
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