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The unsung heroes of access to justice

I have seen the future for sole and small firm practitioners and it looks bright.

People like London, Ont., tax litigator David Thompson, a former Big Law lawyer who moved to a small firm. He now runs his sole practice using a blend of his home office and meeting clients in their own offices, those of the accountants and lawyers who call him in, or in meeting rooms he procures as needed. It’s a trend among lawyers seeking to reduce overhead.

Then there are lawyers like Mike Seto of Toronto, who recently opened his own virtual law firm, and London’s Larry Crossan and Bernie Olanski of Lexcor, who have taken their years of knowledge as business lawyers at a small firm and partnered with Legal Systematics to create SpeedMatters for Corporate Law, a document generating software program. Or Toronto’s Lisa Gelman, who started a family law practice a few years ago and has seen it grow to five offices with more on tap.

Their keys to success are leveraging technology and alternative services now available in the market — the great equalizer for small and sole practices — and having the confidence to bet on their own success.

That’s a far cry from the 1990s, when there was a fear the solo and small firm lawyers would die a slow death. Rather, it’s the general practitioner going the way of the dinosaur. Today’s solo and small firms have re-tooled and are focused on niches or single lines of business.

These practitioners remain the backbone of the legal business — the unsung heroes of access to justice — and are growing in numbers. In 2012, sole and small practitioners accounted for 64 per cent of private practitioners and 98 per cent of licensed law firms. That was up from 62 per cent of lawyers and 97 per cent of firms in 2007. Moreover, the sole and small firm categories are growing the fastest. While the profession in Ontario grew by 25 per cent over the past six years, the growth in the number of sole practitioners was 33 per cent and 27 per cent in small firms.

Contrast that to Big Law, whose growth rate lags. In 2007, there were 31 law firms with more than 51 lawyers, accounting for less than one per cent of firms and only 22 per cent of lawyers in private practice. By 2012, the number of big firms grew to 37, and their total number of lawyers grew by 20 per cent. However, they accounted for only 21 per cent of lawyers in private practice, a one-per-cent decline. I suspect the numbers show similar trends in other provinces.

It’s no surprise then more than 400 lawyers attended, with another 175 by webcast, the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Solo and Small Firm Conference in late May. Most interesting about the event was the diversity of the attendees. Young practitioners mixed with graying colleagues, swapping stories about their practices and challenges, networking and making connections. Gender and racial diversity was evident, a far cry from a decade ago.

What struck me most at the two-day event was the depth of technological change. It wasn’t long ago law firm tech meant printers and fax machines. Today, it’s tablets, smartphones, and paperless offices.

The thought of running your legal practice on Apple technology was once a dream. Today, it’s a reality for Toronto’s Tim Gleason, a Mac proponent. Gleason, whose firm, Dewart Gleason LLP, has the tag line “Fierce Advocates,” says his partners purposely set up their firm on Mac, though they still need a PC in order to connect to Ontario’s land registration system.

Then there is the emergence of cloud computing, which allows users to access information from a variety of computing platforms. It truly makes mobile law a reality, freeing lawyers from the tethers of expensive office space and excessive staff.

Conference speakers explained how technology has become the backbone to their practice, providing them with the competitive edge they need to service their clients, manage their files, and grow their business. They agreed the first thing lawyers need to do before starting a firm today is not hiring an assistant, but finding a good technology consultant.

In fact Kingston, Ont., lawyer Susan Elliott, a former LSUC treasurer, told the crowd if she was starting out today, she’d forego an office and staff, buy a van, deck it out with gadgets, and go mobile. It brought a laugh from the crowd, but she might not be far off the mark.

While challenges exist in practising law in an increasingly mobile and digital world — for example ensuring client data is secure — it’s clear lawyers who invest wisely can compete with larger firms and the small and sole practitioner market segment is alive and kicking.

Maintaining a balanced lifestyle remains a challenge, but Mac proponent Barney Christianson of Manitoba has some advice for that: When it comes to tackling daily chores, identify three things from your urgent list, which is digital of course, and focus on those. Pick the ugliest task and get it out of the way early in the day and you’ll feel better. “Eat the cockroach first,” he advises.

Quick, someone pass me the salt and my iPad, I have a deadline.

Jim Middlemiss blogs about the legal profession at You can follow him on Twitter @JimMiddlemiss.