The Allure of Bay Street
Many aspiring lawyers these days seem to have interest in the field because they believe it to be especially lucrative. Specifically, myths abound about the prospects on Bay Street law firms.
The FindLaw Career Centre does provide information on base and associate salaries. The figures are admittedly impressive, especially since salaries often do not include bonuses and incentives.
But is law all it is cracked up to be?
Naysayers, No More…
Approximately a decade ago, the Globe & Mail reported lay-offs in the Ontario Attorney-General’s office. Commentators also lamented that a third of the newly licensed graduates of law schools were unemployed and seeking jobs.
Cameron Stracher, publisher of the New York Law School Law Review, more more recently discussed the perceived dichotomy in America of “elite lawyers” and everyone else, the latter having fewer opportunities and considerably more challenges.
But the situation in Canada is quite different. Despite persistent myths to the contrary, Canadian law schools are all equally ranked. There is no three-tier system here the way there is in the U.S.
David S Cohen, former Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria, also explains how the number of students in common law programs is approximately 2,000, the same since 1976. He continues by saying,
“…the number of lawyers will reach a steady state roughly in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century; and second, that the number of lawyers per capita and per $GNP will begin to decline at about the same time. That decline will continue until law schools expand enrollment, lawyers are imported from outside Canada, or another Canadian law school opens.”
The Job Futures site confirms a high demand in Canada, with a higher than average salary, outlook, and employment prospects than other careers (1).
However, the psychology research of Fredrick Herzberg has indicated that money is a poor motivator for employees, and rarely leads to greater job satisfaction alone. But there are more benefits to a law career.
No, It’s Not a U2 Fan
Despite other national differences, pro bono work is usually a necessary component of all Canadian and American lawyers at some point in their career.
In a recent study in Law and Society Review, Robert Granfield, a sociologist at the University of Buffalo, claimed that firms often provide incentives for pro bono work by granting billable hours credit, which encourages lawyers to do more volunteer work. This work is especially appealing to newer lawyers who need to gain experience.
And the drive for experience is what often leads law students to get involved in pro bono work during their studies. Community Legal Service and Legal Aid are two of the most common ways law students get involved.
The University of Western Ontario is renowned for these initiatives with the largest program in Canada and a relatively smaller student cohort, resulting in significantly higher number of spots per student .
Murray Austin, new Director of CLS at Western Law, said,
“There is a growing need for lawyers to provide services in these areas, and we believe we are in a excellent position to encourage our students to contribute their time, upon graduation, towards fulfilling that need”.
PBLO to Pro Bono Awards
Granfield also reviewed an upward trend in many major firms of pro bono partners or managers dedicated to coordinating pro-bono initiatives.
He also found that minority advocate lawyers were more likely to support pro bono initiatives, find the experiences rewarding, and conclude that their skills, contacts, and networks benefited from participation.
However, traditional and conservative lawyers are also supporting pro bono work like never before. Gansfield concludes that firms with diversified portfolios had greater budget capability to take on pro bono cases than smaller shops with less resources.
In 2003, Ontario Trillium Foundation provided $25,000 in seed money to Pro Bono Law Ontario (PBLO) . Nearly every major Canadian law firm now has a pro bono workload, and as of last year, they compete annually for the Canadian Pro Bono Awards.
Have Your Cake, and Eat It
With a field boasting high stability and generous returns, and the countless opportunities to give back to society, a legal career remains one of the most sought after in Canada.
But the public should recognize and cherish this important function, and work closely with politicians, lawyers, and firms to help this work continue and expand in the future.
(1) Because these figures include higher salaries for judges and lower for notaries, they should not be considered as predictive of the field as a whole.
Robert Granfield. (2007). The Meaning of Pro Bono: Institutional Variations in Professional Obligations among Lawyers. Law & Society Review 41(1):113–146
Rebecca L. Sandefur. (2007). Lawyers’ Pro Bono Service and American-Style Civil Legal Assistance. Law & Society Review 41(1):79–112
David S Cohen. (1998). How Many Lawyers and Law Students? The supply of lawyers in Canada. BarTalk