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Massive change needed for profession to remain viable: CBA

|Written By Charlotte Santry and Gail J. Cohen

Canada’s conservative legal industry must overcome a vast array of “complex and compelling challenges” to remain viable, argues a Canadian Bar Association report published today.

Fred Headon and Allan Fineblit were in Toronto Tuesday for briefings on the CBA’s Legal Futures Initiative report. (Photo: Gail J. Cohen)

The Future of Legal Services: Trends and Issues” sets out the economic factors, technological changes, and client demands forcing the profession to rethink traditional mindsets.

It warns: “Because of its relative success in the past, the legal profession in Canada is generally conservative. Psychological studies of lawyers have found that they are generally skeptical, autonomous and not resilient.”

They will need to be less “rigid” in future, for example by adopting different billing methods including fixed fees, the report argues.

“Emboldened” clients are increasingly questioning firms’ “basic value proposition”, and also expect to deal with lawyers via quick, electronic communications, it says.

Artificial intelligence will “become much more the norm in the coming years, including in the legal industry,” it adds. This could create time and cost savings for clients.

Alternative business structures already adopted overseas, including non-lawyer ownership, could migrate to Canada as markets grow closer together and competition increases, the publication states.

The document also highlights the problem of excess legal capacity in certain regions, and an undersupply of younger lawyers in other — mainly rural — areas.

It says: “Lawyers, law firms, and the overall legal industry in Canada will be facing a complex and compelling set of challenges over the next decade as they endeavour to remain viable, competitive and relevant in the face of a wave of fundamental change.

“. . . While these decisions may seem daunting to some people, they also present a vast range of opportunities for the profession to reinvent itself and thereby ensure that it remains dynamic and confident.”

CBA vice president Fred Headon said the report was aimed at providing a distinctly Canadian take on the industry and “transforming how legal services are delivered.”

It has been launched as the CBA enters the consultation phase of its Legal Futures Initiative. The initiative, which kicked off last August, is aimed at stimulating discussion and innovation.

Headon chairs the Legal Futures Initiative steering committee and said one of the goals is to “create a framework for ideas and to identify ways to help the legal profession understand the challenges ahead and shape the direction of the future – to the extent that that is possible.”

The initiative has teams examining three key areas of the industry:

1.    education;

2.    alternative business structures and innovation; and

3.    ethics and professional regulation.

At a briefing on the report’s release, Headon noted, “there are not only better way to serve the client but more clients to be had.”

While change could be very disruptive for lawyers, there is “plenty of opportunity if we come to it with a sense of confidence and not of fear,” he suggested.

Allan Fineblit, CEO of the Law Society of Manitoba and another member of the steering committee, stressed the importance of including all members of the profession — large firms, small firms, in-house counsel, the academy, law societies, and other professional organizations — in order to make change happen because there are “lots of rules regarding law firms that just don’t make any sense today.”

As part of the initiative, the CBA will be seeking input from lawyers, clients and non-legal and paralegal service providers. It is expected to report back in full sometime during 2014.

“Canadians deserve a vibrant legal profession that better responds to client expectation,” said Headon. “That is the purpose of this initiative.”

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