Professional responsibility and aging of the Bar.
By Caroline Nevin
If you practice in a larger firm, you may well notice a bit more grey hair at the table and some turnover among your firm’s leadership. However, if you practice in Vancouver, the lawyers you work with, both as colleagues and opposing counsel, are likely younger on average than in the rest of the province. In fact, the volume of young lawyers you see and hire may actually camouflage what’s really going on: fewer young lawyers are staying in practice and are seeking to become the equity partners of tomorrow. That may well impact your long-term financial planning, and you should spend some time thinking about how you and your firm will strategize in response.
In smaller firms and communities around the province, the reality of an aging Bar is even more stark. The average age of lawyers everywhere is rising as the Baby Boomer bulge hits their 60’s and 70’s – and this is the age group most likely operating in rural and small town community legal practices. With increased student loan debts, younger lawyers are drawn to urban practices on the (perhaps mistaken) premise that they will have more disposable income to pay off their loan more quickly. More and more senior lawyers I talk to have deferred full retirement not because of devalued savings, but because there is no-one to take their place in serving their clients and community.
Among people aged 65 and older, the Alzheimer’s Society predicts one out of 11 has Alzheimer’s to one degree or another – and the risk doubles every five years after 65. That’s only one type of impairment; there is an increased risk of many other debilitating and fatal illnesses that manifest anytime after age 50.
This points to a significant responsibility of all of us committed to ensuring self-regulation of lawyers. Protection of the public interest means that we must, as a profession, ensure competent, uninterrupted service to clients regardless of what is going on with any one particular lawyer. This is as true in the biggest law firm as it is in small town B.C.
The concept of “practitioner impairment” is a touchy one, especially within a profession that traditionally honours the skills and experience of its senior members. And yet, there is a need to ensure adequate supports, alarm systems and interventions when you notice that an impairment in yourself or a colleague is affecting service to clients or the administration of justice. And you have an important professional responsibility to ensure that you have a “succession” or “practice continuance” plan in case you or your law partner become unable to serve clients for a period of time, or leave unexpectedly due to sudden illness or death.
This is particularly important for solo and small firm practitioners, who make up 45 per cent of the practicing Bar. This same segment generates almost twice as many complaints to the Law Society as compared to their colleagues who practice with three or more lawyers. Succession and continuance planning is essential for every practitioner, but it is absolutely critical in practices with no or few colleagues upon whom to rely in a crisis.
Building on some great resources developed by the Law Society of British Columbia (see www.lawsociety.bc.ca under Practice Resources) CBA is preparing a number of Professional Development opportunities to help ensure that lawyers throughout the province get the chance to discuss these important issues. We are committed to helping you gain the tools you need to prepare and protect your own practice to survive everything from a “time out” to deal with a treatable health issue, to a catastrophic interruption in service to your clients. We welcome your input as we develop these and other innovative PD programs.
This article was published in the February 2011 issue of BarTalk. © 2011 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.