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Don't be left behind

These are not the best of times. These are not the worst of times. But the times, they are a changing. Not to mix poets, or metaphors, or anything but the truth’s the truth. It’s a time of upheaval — disruption as some call it — in the legal profession. What has gone before and worked before can no longer be relied on to work in the future. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a profession built on tradition and precedent.

Just days before this issue went to press, the Canadian Bar Association released its report “The future of legal services in Canada: Trends and issues.” It’s the jump-off point for a series of research papers on the future of the profession and looks at three key areas: education; innovation and alternative business structures; and ethics and regulatory issues. As the report (which you should read at notes, lawyers for the most part are a conservative lot and don’t exactly embrace change: “Psychological studies of lawyers have found that they are generally skeptical, autonomous, and not resilient,” says the report.

There is a lot of truth to that but at the same time the game is changing and so are the players. Canada is not known for being a leader in legal innovation but while slow to get there, Canadians are jumping on board. Global law firms have landed on our shores and are bringing some of the country’s oldest and most esteemed firms into the fold. Technology is levelling the playing field for smaller firms, and as I saw at the recent solo and small firm conference held by the Law Society of Upper Canada, a lot of those firms are using it in a variety of innovative ways.

The aging bar, the huge numbers of young lawyers joining the bar, fewer partners in big firms, more niche work in boutique firms, alternative fee arrangements, a changing economy, client pushback — all of these are disruptive forces. But disruptive is not necessarily bad. Everything I’ve mentioned can be seen as either positive or negative — it’s the ones who see the positive who are going to come out on top. As Fred Headon, the incoming president of the Canadian Bar Association and head of its Legal Futures Initiative, said at our briefing: “There are not only better ways to serve the client but more clients to be had.”

The CBA’s research shows there are large numbers of “latent” clients who are not engaging lawyers for a variety of reasons. “Lawyers often are not responding in packaging services in a way clients want,” Headon noted. Despite the new challenges, the report found very few firms invest in development of novel products and services. Understanding what clients want and a sense of entrepreneurship are key for future success. “With many new types of suppliers entering the marketplace and with more discerning and demanding clients in the future, there will be a need for more creative ideas in the legal industry besides ‘let’s do more of what we do, but better, faster, and cheaper,’” says the CBA report.

Those words were echoed by attendees at LawTechCamp, at which I spoke early in June. The event drew a lot of young, innovative lawyers looking for new and interesting ways to serve clients and improve their legal businesses. It was inspiring.

There have been lots of reports on the future of the legal profession. Most are collecting dust. The CBA’s latest initiative is a broad examination of all aspects of the profession. Over the next year, the association is consulting with the profession and will release its final reports in 2014. Get involved. Start a discussion. Send us, the CBA, even your colleagues your thoughts and ideas. Canadian Lawyer is joining in and will be doing some futurecasting of our own in the next issue: look for provocative essays from five of the profession’s thought leaders.

Change is here. Don’t be left behind.