“We should start an incubator!”
So blurted Tony Young, one of the leaders of the family law bar in Alberta (and now the president of the province’s law society) during a meeting at the Canadian Bar Association’s offices in Calgary in late 2015. And that’s what we’re doing. As I’ve said to anyone who’ll listen, the future of training the next generation of family law professionals is now. It’s called the Aspire Legal Access Initiative and it opened its doors in Calgary last week.
First, the back story. After arriving at the University of Calgary in 2011, I had a series of unhappy meetings with family lawyers — some our graduates, some not. The meetings all took a slightly different form, but the common theme was that there was a shortage of competent family lawyers in southern Alberta and it was our fault for all we did was prepare students for Big Law. My retort was always the same: We had plenty of students who were interested in family law, but there were almost no articling positions. In other words, they were polite versions of a Groundhog Day-style “It’s your fault!”/“No, it’s your fault!” argument. And they always ended the same way — cordially (because we’re lawyers) but unsatisfactorily on both sides.
After I’d been here a couple of years, Young and I agreed that we’d try again — and that we’d try to strike a more constructive tone. Hence, the meeting at the CBA. We originally planned to meet to talk about how we might increase the number of family law articling spots. And that was Young’s cue — like all real innovators do — to change the conversation.
Instantly, the atmosphere transformed from confrontation to collaboration and from exasperation to exhilaration. It was among the most exciting two hours I’ve spent in my professional life. And when the meeting broke up, we all left full of vim, vigour and resolve to try something that would be new — really new — in Canada. We had no money, we had no space and we had no staff, but we had the precursor to all that for we had an idea!
The plan we came up with was to establish a for-profit family law firm in the law school, not to make money for the school but, rather, to make something that could be financially self-sustaining. We would hire four articling students who, after articling, would spend their first year as an admitted lawyer in the incubator. And in that two-year period, we’d not only teach them the law stuff but we’d also give them systematic instruction in things such as law office management, marketing and human resources so that, at the end, they’d really be ready to go out on their own. We were determined that from the beginning this would be a paperless practice (or at least as paperless as the rules of court permit). To use a line I’ve used before in these columns, our ambition was to prepare these young lawyers for the profession they were joining, not the one that we joined. So, imparting a degree of tech sophistication, we felt, was a critical part of the equation. Put it all together and, far from being a source of more articling positions, our educational model would be better than articling!
So far so good. But who would run something like this? Given that we wanted to start a type of legal practice for which there was no existing model, we found ourselves looking for a combination of the Wright Brothers and Paul Cravath — and in Kyla Sandwith, we found her! Sandwith had practised in a big firm and in-house. She had spent a number of years running the associate and student program at one of the national firms and she had taught an innovative course for us called Leadership for Lawyers as an adjunct professor. That was all good. But what really set her apart was that she had done a graduate degree with a focus on innovation and change management. What she wasn’t, though, was a family lawyer. This may have seemed a counter-intuitive choice for someone who would be running a family law firm, but we decided that an experienced lawyer could learn the substance of family law (and to help her, we put together a group of volunteer counsel). What mightn’t come so easily, we reasoned, was an innovation mindset and experience at system design and both of those things Sandwith had in spades!
Other stars began to align. The university’s senior leadership (viz, my bosses) made plain that they were solidly behind the project. They gave us space and moral support. The university counsel’s office helped draft and prepare all the paperwork (including incorporating as a society formally separate from the university) we needed before the doors could be opened.
For its part, the law society could not have been more supportive. It helped us work through — and around, when necessary — the regulatory issues, and boy, did this project raise some regulatory issues. What we found we were doing was establishing what the lingo describes as an “alternative business structure.” Who’d a thunk it? The conventional narrative — among mainstream lawyers, at least — is of ABSs as big, faceless corporate entities that are bent on driving hard-working smalls and soles out of business. But there we found ourselves, not just at the leading edge of innovation in professional training but also at the vanguard of the ABS debate.
In any event, here we are. The hoops have been jumped through and Aspire Legal has now seen its first clients. Time — and the sweat of Sandwith and her students — will tell whether we’re really on the cusp of a breakthrough like we think we are. But if do pull this off — if, in other words, we are able to come up with a model that is financially self-sustaining — then it will be big, big, big! We’ll have helped ensure that lawyers have the wherewithal to go into underserved areas of practice; our model can be taken on the road, so to speak, in areas such as criminal defence or immigration and refugee law, for instance. We’ll also have taken a step toward improving the articling model and preparing the next generation of lawyers for practice in the 21st century. Aren’t those two of the biggest issues facing our profession today?