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The Article

There are two species of lawyers—the Big Firm guys and the Second Floor men

Maclean’s magazine last week produced a cover story that subjected the Canadian legal profession to the severest public criticism it has ever experienced.  In it, Philip Slayton, ex-dean of law at Western Ontario University and a front-line Bay Street practitioner, denounced his fellow lawyers for grotesque over-billing, blatant fraud, rank bribery, injustice, and even sexual exploitation of clients.

When the Canadian Bar Association wrathfully demanded Maclean’s retract the story and apologize, the magazine instead quoted several luminaries of the profession, making substantially the same complaints—one of them on the CBA’s own website—and cordially declined to do either.

In the torrent of letters that poured forth into the daily news media, lawyers bitterly blamed it all on one disaffected member of the profession.  Even so, the story seemed to be standing up rather well.

I’ve always noticed there are two species of lawyers—the Big Firm guys and the Second Floor men in beat-up downtown office buildings or in suburban premises where the square-footage comes much cheaper.

From the Big Firm boys (and sometimes girls) I have seen some astronomical bills. Their practices, of course, are largely centred on huge corporate clients who no doubt hand out astronomical bills of their own.

But if a small client comes in the door, he should walk warily, because he will be assessed much the same as would General Motors.  Work that could not possibly require more than rubber-stamp attention comes with price tags that rarely fall below four figures.  Moreover, there seems to be a tendency to warn you of legal problems that few would ever have suspected.  For the warning, they want $10,000.  To protect you against the discerned peril, $100,000 more.

I’ve been told some big firms in Calgary have introduced the idea of “bonus billing.”  Hired to help negotiate some big deal, they present a bill demanding a bonus payment if the deal flies.  There is never any suggestion of a penalty if the deal fails to fly.

But to be fair, I have to add something else about these Big Firm lawyers.  I’ve known some of them to be quietly generous with their own money.  I suppose they could be modern day Robin Hoods, robbing the rich and giving to the poor.  Just don’t approach them professionally, if you ain’t rich.

The other species focus in the main on much more modest clients and send out much more modest bills.  Where I feared getting hit for one or two thousand dollars, I’ve seen them come in at half or even a quarter of that.  I’ve also benefited from an extraordinary honesty. Again and again they have told me how to avoid legal expenses, thereby discouraging income, much of which would have gone to themselves. 

Among them I have encountered some admirable individuals, one in particular.  I will not name him because he would never speak to me again if I did. He doesn’t like public attention and responds acidly to all forms of commendation.  But the fact is he represented our old newsmagazine for the first five or so years of its 30-year existence without sending any bills at all, and the ones he sent after that were spectacularly low and often never got paid anyway. Yet he is a lawyer of great capability, saved our hides in a dozen or more libel suits, and repeatedly steered us around major trouble by the unfailing intelligence of his advice.

Now to have this man associated with a profession characterized by fraud, greed, exploitation, and cynical manipulation of the legal system is so unfair as to be preposterous.  And yet, I suspect he might endorse in large measure the Maclean’s story.  He sometimes speaks wistfully of the law as it was once practised and no longer is.  The old code is gone, he says.

Being a lawyer isn’t fun any more. Perhaps Maclean’s is saying the same thing.  In fact, we’re seeing the same phenomenon everywhere. No society can run without rules.  We’ve abolished the rules; we’re suffering the consequences.

Why be surprised?

Ted Byfield
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