I’ve been in Europe all week, and my sole access to information has been La Republicca, Corriere and 2 minutes of excruciatingly slow dial-up access. So I haven’t been able to follow Slaw as closely as I should.
At at the Law Society’s Solo and Small Firm Conference ten days ago, my partner Gavin MacKenzie spoke as the Treasurer about the looming problem of access to legal services outside the big cities.
As he travels to meet with County Law Associations he’s learned in community after community that Ontario’s small town lawyers are an aging breed whose ranks aren’t being replenished by new graduates. The average age is 55 and within a decade fully half expect to leave the practice of law. We face the very real possibility that not merely will legal services be priced beyond the average income but there simply won’t be lawyers to provide those services.
I pause to observe that paralegals may be perfectly positioned to exploit these market failures.
So why aren’t younger lawyers opting for small town practice?
Economics: with margins on conveyancing cut to the bone and with the rise of title insurance, the demise of personal injury litigation, and legal aid being tightly controlled by its government funders, its tough to make a living, even given lower costs of living and business overhead.
Specialization: I sense that its tougher now than it ever was to be a general practitioner, willing to take whatever comes through the door.
Legal education: as the cost of legal education has increased the debt load gets tougher to repay at salaries that may be a fraction of big city firms. The distorting effects of NYC starting salaries are felt far afield. And the law schools haven’t been focussing on small town generalists. Ontario’s Bar Admission Course has been slimmed down too, and must serve the entire body of graduates.
So what’s to be done?
Following on the model of subsidizing new medical graduates to practise medicine in underserved or smaller communities, we may have to fund debt relief for those willing to work as lawyers in similar locations.
All of us involved with the legal profession need to remind ourselves that solos and small firms dominate the numbers of the profession and that the world of Bay Street represents a small and atypical minority that can appear so dominant that it distorts perceptions.
Technology may play its part. The Law Society’s Solo and Small Firm Conference attracted 250 lawyers hungry to learn about practice management, marketing and how technology can help. We need to take the show on the road though. Richard Susskind has long theorized about the potential for consumer oriented intelligent systems to package legal advice to meet a vast latent market for legal services. We’ve seen more of this kind of innovation in Britain though Richard Granat and others in the SE have been doing some pioneering work.
Legal information has been subject to price increases that have far outstripped inflation for a generation. Equipping a basic law library for a general practitioner remains expensive. Web access to statutes and regulations helps as does CanLII. But we haven’t seen the sort of cheaper alternatives like Loislaw or onelexis.com in smaller markets like Canada. Indeed the acquistion of QL and the evolution of Thomson West’s offerings has only increased rates to the point where it becomes more difficult for solos and smaller firms to justify the expense.
The model of sponsoring basic legal information that the Chambre des Notaires pioneered in L’Inforoute Notariale might have more traction given collaborative tools like wikis.
We need more hard thinking before shifts in demographics get translated into a new problem of access to legal services.