CITY SCENE

Rocking the legal boat

Shona McKay May 16 1983
CITY SCENE

Rocking the legal boat

Shona McKay May 16 1983

Rocking the legal boat

CITY SCENE

Shona McKay

Toronto’s towering Bay Street skyscrapers do not reach high enough to block the sun streaming into the ground-floor law office of Jane Harvey Associates. Inside, an oversized price list hangs strategically by the ceiling-high street window, where passers-by can read that an initial consultation with a lawyer costs $37.50, a simple will $100 and an uncontested divorce $450. The unimposing shop sits in marked contrast to the austere facades and closed doors of Toronto’s surrounding business district. But the openness is deliberate. Like her other two storefront law offices in Toronto, Jane Harvey’s Bay Street shop is designed with the consumer in mind.

Harvey, 31, is a forerunner in Canada in her approach to the law. The visibility of her price list lies just within the restrictions on advertising set by the Law Society of Upper Canada, which governs the activities of Ontario lawyers. Along with 18 other regulatory law bodies from across the country, the Law Society of Upper Canada last year argued before the Supreme Court of Canada that provincial law societies should rule on the question of a lawyer’s right to advertise. In August the Supreme Court decided in their favor. The ruling, in which Mr. Justice Willard Estey stated that “the general public is not in a position to appraise unassisted the need for legal service,” was a disappointment to many of Canada’s law-

yers. Said Harvey: “It is typical of the Canadian legal profession, which is, by nature, conservative.”

Still, there are clear signs that the status quo is changing. Harsh economic times, a glut of young law graduates and increasingly aware consumers are forcing lawyers to emerge from their oak-panelled rooms to earn their living. “We have been acting like we were still in the 19th century,” admitted Yves Fortier, 47, president of the Canadian Bar Association and an advocate of a more publicly responsive law. “The times are demanding that the law profession loosen up.”

More than any other factor, money— or the lack of it—is denting the armor of legal traditionalists. The recent slowdown in the corporate and legal sectors has resulted in the layoffs of lawyers, in law firm mergers and in a good deal of competition within the legal trade. Said Fortier: “Many lawyers have been forced to the conclusion that it is a competitive world out there.”

The tight market for legal services has also created a controversy over the number of new lawyers entering the field each year. In Ontario 65 per cent of this year’s 960 graduating law students have yet to find jobs. The Law Society of Upper Canada, which has been examining the issue for the past two years, recently concluded that there are more lawyers than required. However, the society is reluctant to alter the situation. “Any move to limit the number of entrants would lead to cries of price-

fixing,” explained Fortier. “We would understandably suffer the wrath of the public.”

Increasingly, the legal profession has to reckon with the public. One such attempt was Canada’s first national Law Day—sponsored last month by the Canadian Bar Association— which was intended to help span the wide gap between the Canadian public and the legal profession. “Lawyers are reacting to the fact that more consumers are obtaining an awareness of the law,” noted Donald Jabour, 48, a Vancouver lawyer whose 1978 decision to ignore the rules and advertise his fees led to a legal furore in his province and to the subsequent decision by the B.C. provincial law society to allow its members to advertise their fields of expertise. Said Jabour: “Lawyers are now reporting that they are getting more people shopping around for legal services. It also seems obvious that prices have come down in some cases.”

For many consumers the changes are long overdue. John Holosko, a 27-yearold Toronto cameraman, recently sought Harvey’s services to obtain a marriage separation agreement. Said Holosko: “I have dealt with many lawyers before and in many cases I felt that I was at their mercy. This time there were no oak doors and no long delays in a waiting room. I was told on the first visit exactly what I was getting into, what it would cost and how long it would take. It was refreshing to say the least.”

It has been three years since Harvey opened her first store in Toronto. Since then she has served 2,000 clients and she plans to open her fourth storefront office in June. Says Harvey: “The average person often is in difficulty when he goes to see a lawyer. He may be intimidated, frightened about the cost and unclear about what hiring a lawyer means. We try to answer all those questions and allay all the fears at the first meeting.”

Harvey’s success thus far proves that the type of service she offers is meeting a need. “The big guys are taken care of by the expensive law firms, and the people at the lower end of the economic scale have access to a good legal aid system,” said Fortier. “It is the famous middle class that has been neglected in the past. Finally, lawyers are beginning to address that group.” But the process is slow. To date, Harvey remains the only lawyer in Toronto making a pitch to the consumer through a storefront window. Still, the system is changing, and Harvey sees a continuing trend toward a more responsive law. Says Harvey: “I am not doing this out of radicalism but because it makes good common and business sense.”