The supply of lawyers in Canada
by Dean David S Cohen
A question raised by lawyers, educational policy analysts, and university administrators is: Are there too many students in law schools and thus, are there too many lawyers entering the profession each year? The common answer is YES--and there are constant calls for closing or shrinking law schools.
One response is that the purpose of law schools is not limited to producing skilled lawyers. The purpose extends to public legal education, and to dissemination of legal information. A substantial portion of law graduates do not plan to have a career in law.
A second response is to ask if questioners might reflect back 40 years and forward perhaps 10, to gain a better understanding of the role of law schools in affecting the number of lawyers in practice.
An analysis of law school enrollment growth from 1955-1975 demonstrates that there was a substantial increase in the law student population during that period, but fails to consider accurately the medium and long-term demographics of the legal profession. In particular, an analysis of graduation and retirement rates of lawyers demonstrates two things: First, that 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.
Surprisingly, there have been virtually no new “seats” added to common law first year law classes in Canada for the last 22 years. The number of first year law students in common law programs remains approximately 2,000--unchanged since 1976. At least two law schools have reduced their entering class size since 1980.
Assuming a lawyer in public or private practice will have a 30 year career, the number of lawyers in Canada will reach a steady state in about 2005. At that time, the number of law graduates (2,000) will roughly equal the number of lawyers retiring (2,000). An analysis of profession growth rates in 1960-1970 should indicate this steady state will be approached beginning in 2000. Assuming a constant increase in Canada’s total population over time, the number of lawyers per capita will begin to decline in about 2005; and the number of lawyers per $GNP will begin to decline no later than 2005, and perhaps even sooner.
Of course, one must admit the uncertainty that plagues this kind of analysis--an uncertainty reflected in the assumptions underlying it. The first assumption is that there is a positive relationship between demand for lawyers and population and/or $GNP; second, that output per lawyer will be constant over the relevant time period; third, that regional differences in GNP and numbers of law graduates can safely be ignored (i.e., that there is a national market for lawyers entering the legal profession); fourth, that the percentage of law graduates entering the legal profession will be constant over time, or at a minimum does not increase over the relevant time period; fifth, that net immigration of lawyers to Canada does not vary over time, or at a minimum does not increase over the relevant time period; and finally, that the impact of technology on the delivery of legal services and the effect of competition from para-professionals and professional services firms will be offset by the growth of new opportunities for lawyers.
The prediction of future demand for lawyer services is an ambiguous exercise. However, we can predict the future supply of lawyers with considerable precision. In thinking about the numbers of law students and lawyers today, we must reflect on the future of the legal profession and access by Canadians to legal services and to the legal profession.
Dean David S Cohen is Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria.
This article was published in the August 1998 issue of BarTalk. © 1998 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.