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Alberta law society’s bid to modernize hits roadblock

|Written By Geoff Ellwand
Alberta law society’s bid to modernize hits roadblock
Don Thompson, executive director of the Law Society of Alberta, says currently, the law society doesn't have the ability to regulate innovative legal delivery service models.

It used to be you phoned a lawyer, booked an appointment, went to her office and told her about your problems. A retainer was arranged, advice was given, paper was pushed and (sometimes) it all ended satisfactorily.

A lot of people, including lawyers, entrepreneurs and especially entrepreneurial lawyers, are looking at less costly, less formal and swifter ways of delivering legal services not just to individuals but also to huge corporations.

The Law Society of Alberta, which has been collaborating with the other law societies on the Prairies, says it wants “to keep the profession relevant in a rapidly changing marketplace.” In a recent news release, it says, “Our goal is to find better ways to support lawyers who want to innovate in legal service delivery.” And it is looking for new legislative tools to do just that.

A random, abbreviated list of potential technological innovations includes law firms owned and operated by people other than lawyers, counter-top legal services in big department stores, fully online legal service, banks, financial institutions and real estate firms providing front-line legal services and a bigger role for paralegals.

“Are these the right solutions? Maybe and maybe not,” says Don Thompson, executive director of the law society. But, he adds, “Currently, under the act, we don’t have the ability to regulate [most of] these types of innovative legal delivery service models. We only have the ability to regulate law firms.”

Jason Morris, an Edmonton-area lawyer and legal tech expert, raises just one of a plethora of impending and complex issues surrounding the intersection of regulation and innovation. “If you can automate certain kinds of legal services previously provided by a lawyer, are you automating the ‘practice of law’? And if you are, who is ‘practising’ and if they are not a lawyer, can they be prohibited from doing it?”

It is those kinds of conundrums that caused the law society to spend almost a year touring the province, talking to big and small practitioners about change. The outcome is a series of proposed additions and deletions to the Legal Profession Act. But now the province says it has run out of legislative time and has “other priorities” before the mandated provincial election coming no later than May 2019.

“We are disappointed,” says Thompson, but he adds that the society is determined to keep working on change. And, presumably, it will get changes through the legislature no matter what party is in power.


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