Only the New Can Change the Profession

The more I discuss change in the legal profession, the more the same question is asked of me: what will drive the change than many in the profession agree is long overdue. And when I say “many in the profession,” I mean young lawyers. The established, older set of partners in charge of many of this country’s firms have no reason to change what they are doing and are simply eyeing the finish line of their careers. Add to that, the fact that large established firms are weighed down with legacy IT systems, as well as an antiquated partnership and billing model – making them akin to large tanker ships completely unable to change course in a field of icebergs.

I once believed that change in the profession is so obvious that surely everyone will “get it”. Changing the profession into a better service model is, in the words of Karl Chapman, “nothing clever.” But I’ve learned that inertia and a fear of losing partners or practice groups, is the glue that holds these giant ships together these days – not good business sense.

I also once believed that General Counsel would surely be pushing for a better service model. Afterall, they are the ones that pay the bills and they have to answer to their Boards about budgets. I have been proved wrong again in this area. As Canadian General Counsel, despite the rhetoric, have not been aggressive in demanding more from their firms or even demanding better and different modes of delivery. There is still a strong sense that no one ever got fired for hiring “[insert name of big firm here]”.

So what’s left?

My current view is that change will come from only one source: imaginative, energized lawyers who see the possibility of turning the profession upside-down as an exciting and very profitable business opportunity. Fresh new entities like Riverview Law, Axiom and Cognition are leading the way and more will follow them. Unburdened by any albatrosses they are free to re-think things and offer new menus of services to clients.

Once a critical mass of clients who are used to thinking about legal services in a new way emerges in the marketplace – change will snowball.

In other words, at this point in time, legal clients still don’t know what they want or what they can get. So it takes new providers to show them what can be done and to in fact train these clients to expect more. Consumers didn’t know that they all needed a tablet until it was created. The same can be said of legal clients.

As I have said in the past, this is very exciting time for the business side of the legal profession; a time of unlimited opportunity and promise for those bold enough to do things differently.

Feel free to throw this post back in my face next year if I’m wrong.


  1. An inspiring vision to be sure; however, one year might be a little soon. I’ll consider throwing it back in your face in about twenty. I hope that the new will keep bringing their ideas, despite the potential intimidation factor of the large tanker.

  2. The legal service providers listed in the post appear to be catering to a corporate clientele. In order to control costs and cost-efficiency is it foreseeable that the corporate clients will put in place a bidding and tendering process for legal services?

  3. Too bad that BFC doesn’t hire these innovative thinkers.

    I also agree with Heather, it won’t happen by next year. This change will take time, but those that wait will hurt the most.

  4. There will always be 3 categories of clients. Those that qualify for legal aid, those that can afford a lawyer of their choice, and those that fall into the cracks. They do not qualify for legal aid and don’t have the money for a lawyer. My best advice for new lawyers to engage those who can afford to spend their money, is to market aggressively on social media. Tell those clients what you will do for them and how you will work with them. Offer a free consultation. Get them in the door. Be client centered not lawyer centered and your practice will flourish.

  5. I applaud your sentiments, Mitch, but also see one year as an understatement. The twenty (!) years since my graduation encompassed some pretty significant changes in the world at large and in the profession, if less so in the practice. Our ability to have this discussion, the birth of LII and those it inspired, and legal and social developments directed to equity of opportunity are a few.

    Despite dramatic developments in technology and communication and despite the will and efforts of other innovative, once-young lawyers – as well as of learned and insightful senior lawyers – change seems to have come but incrementally and certainly not universally. I’m not sure what new impetus exists to change the pace of the behemoth.

    I’d love for anyone to contradict me. I’m not jaded and curmudgeonly just yet.

  6. I loved the “Cognition” overview: “…our “virtual approach-no fancy offices, receptionists, or art collections-…” what no individually wrapped chocolates, sparkling glasses of ice-cold perrier, or huge fresh-flower arrangements to set the scene to meet and greet a “large tanker ship”. With the explosion of social media, I would think that the “critical mass theory” could accelerate the changes to the profession in a few years (2-3yrs). Once the public begins comparing and sharing the options then it is likely the level of legal literacy will also improve rapidly. While some clients will still be attracted to the facade, the new generation of clients (the same ones who don’t want china, silverware and crystal for wedding presents but, instead request gift certificates and/or cash) will move to a better service model to meet their legal means and needs.

    I agree with you Mitch, the “new thinkers and doers” will be the instrument of change but a few smart large tanker ships may change coarse to ride the wave.

  7. F.W. Taylor from an ideological perspective changed the organization of work through time and motion studies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The biggest manufactures applied his insights if they can be called insights: reduce the amount of movement of one person to its minimal point at the same as organizing the processes in a like manner with all those working. He was of the view that only the stupid could function for any length of time under these rationalized work processes and conditions. Taylorism applied is usually referred to as Fordism. Legal services has a long history of this type of approach: boilerplates, templates, etc. forms, and the interminable list of common law writs, etc. The key to Taylorism is breaking apart of any and all forms of expertise as we normally this concept. The second factor is taking control away from the expertise the right to control their processes and time. So shipping off or contracting out services is a primitive form in an effort to lower costs either through the use of paralegals or lawyers in India. The hard kernel of law is legal expertise of the legal processes and the control of the legal processes. The legal profession has until recently, at least in common law jurisdictions, been not only in the centre but has had virtually total control. However the expertise and control of the processes are systematically being taken away from the legal profession and in the case of expertise being carved out by other “professions”. A thorough study of other “professions” and specialized crafts will unearth much literature on the de-skilling of these “arts”. Historically when this begins no rearguard actions of any sort can stop the process but these can slow it down. In the deskilling process, which is ongoing – it never stops, the craft becomes a shadow of its former self. Those of independent means, as opposed to those working in the factories (small and large but not tiny) usually through some combination of huckterism and talent are able to carve out a niche, but cannot guarantee a place for their offspring or even their own survival. Others have referred to the de-skilling processes as the proletarianization of the middle class professions. For the survivors there is no thing called noblesse oblige.

  8. m. diane kindree

    Ginger, I appreciate your insight but I am surprised that McDonaldization was not given an honorable mentioned since it is predicated on a model of predictability and efficiency. In the case of Mr. Taylor, he took brain work (thinking) away from the factory floor (doing) to co-ordinate and control the work force to produce more. As for Mr.Ford, he didn’t invent the assemble line; Ransom Old did, in 1901, and introduced it to the automobile industry. Ford facilitate this process by adding the conveyor belts and better pay for his worker (he also made more $$$). Maybe Ford has been given more credit as an inventor than he really deserves. I am optimistic that the new legal “thinkers and doers”, will hone their professional skills and talents to better interact with the public in a changing marketplace. Isn’t it the role of the Canadian Bar Association and the Law Societies to address any professional standards, practices and ethical concerns surrounding deskilling and out-sourcing? Is this a problem in Canada?
    While “Art” remains in the eyes of the beholder, I remain encouraged and optimistic that changes, will for the most part, impact society and the profession positively.

  9. I agree with the comments and would add that Fordism became the name for these practices. McDonaldization is a new stage in the Fordist line, and usually incorporates Fordism (efficiency and predictability) and as well as other issues: quallity (poor, usually), manufactured foods, chemical additives, unsafe and unhealthy “food”, extensive use of antibiotics and grasslands, and recently, GMO foods can now be added to the list. However no amount of “thinkers and doers” will bring back control of the legal “system” to the legal profession. It is the control factor which is crucial and once lost can not be regained. The provision legal services has now reached the stage of mass production, and like all other commodities, will be broken apart. But there will be places as the Wal-Martization continues its march for niche “boutiques”. The question will be niche for whom ? Probably only for the “high end” with the financial means. Weber described these processes as the iron cage of economic rationality (market rationlity) applied all social forms and institutions. An example of the workings of these processes would be the pressures being exerted on the judicial system and judges to increase “output” (without opening up the issue of ideology). It is highly unlikely that a rational, reasonable and thinking person would deny that working through (writing, etc.) a judicial decision takes time and reflection. However heavier case loads and statutory changes will force faster, greater and standardized output. To borrow Parizeau’s lobster analogy, this is putting society in boiling water and watching it squeal. He also predicted that it would force the lobster to jump out.

  10. Ginger, this has been an interesting overview of the application of social forms but what drives the majority of the public’s consumption, in these difficult economic times, is value. As I see it, the best case scenario would be if people can satisfactorily settle their difference before the case ever reaches the court. I hope the changes, to the legal profession, will be directed at developing innovative and sustainable programs that ensuring those that currently have no access to justice, get some. If greater numbers of people are receiving valuable and affordable legal services then, I would hope there will fewer “lobsters jumping out of the boil water”. Without a doubt, it is time to change the menu.

  11. m. diane kindree

    What I actually meant to say was: I would like to see “fewer lobsters placed in the boiling water and then, fewer have to jump out”. No, I actually don’t want to see any lobsters in the boiling water….what a disturbing analogy and appetite suppressant.