Knocking down hurdles

As Canadians come out of one of the worst winters in the history of ever, you can smell spring in the air; you can feel a palpable change in attitude as we expose our lily-white skin to a little warmth and sunshine. Like the crocuses that push up through the semi-frozen ground to herald the new season, dire economic reality appears to be the fertilizer for change in the legal profession.

Not only the financial difficulties being faced by law firms large, medium, and small but also the growing number of unrepresented litigants in the courts and a serious deficit in access to justice across the country are driving the inevitable.

I’ve said this before, but the profession in this country — and the law societies that regulate it — are not exactly on the cutting edge of legal innovation. But it does seem that times are changing.

The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society released a detailed report last October entitled “Transforming Regulation and Governance in the Public Interest” — a thorough look at all the seeds of change from technology through unbundling, new law firm structures, globalization, the greying bar, growth of in-house counsel, and more. This discussion, of course, included alternative business structures in the practice of law, i.e.: non-lawyer ownership of firms.

As writer donalee Moulton reports on page 7, the NSBS is currently looking at shifting from a regulatory system that licenses individual lawyers to one that licenses legal entities. “In spite of much change in how and where lawyers practise and why people need lawyers, our method of regulation has not evolved on pace with the advancement of technology or of government, civil, and commercial interactions,” says NSBS President René Gallant.

In February, the Law Society of Upper Canada announced it would begin formal consultations on the establishment of ABSs. That coupled with the experimental Legal Practice Program, which launches in September, to provide a non-articling route to licensing, and the innovative law degree being offered at Lakehead University are some of the boldest changes to legal education in decades.

Other law societies across the country are starting to examine changes to regulation as well but right now, it’s almost all talk; but the LPP is a start and the NSBS’ Gallant says within six months, there’s going to be action in his province.

Other jurisdictions have shown that if you change it, they will come.

In the United Kingdom, where ABSs have been allowed for about two years, there are now more than 300 registered licensees. The road may not be completely without bumps, but obviously there is great interest. According to Legal Futures, interest in providing legal services is coming from many different areas. “A multi-disciplinary business services company, a virtual law firm associated with entrepreneur James Caan and a fast-growing Manchester personal injury practice” are some of the recent licensees.

There are some innovators in the legal sphere here but not yet enough. It’s a case of stimulating creativity in an industry that has coasted for decades but is finally being forced to reinvent itself.

But regulatory change is necessary to allow for such innovation for the benefit of the profession and public. That means something as simple — and basic to the entrepreneurial spirit — as giving your law firm a catchy name shouldn’t be a major regulatory hurdle. It still is. There’s much to do and some way to go yet but these are exciting times.

As Stephen Sondheim says in West Side Story: Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is/But it is/Gonna be great!

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