What if the Western Provinces Saved the Profession?

Last week I missed my appointed blog date – but for a good reason. I was honoured to speak at the Law Society of Alberta Plenary Session as part of the CBA winter conference in Edmonton. While few would suggest Edmonton as a preferred January destination, for me it was a hotspot of discussion around change in the legal services industry.

I continually find that west of the Upper Canadian border, law societies become progressively more forward-thinking and open to changing things in the public interest. It seems to me that law societies east of the Rockies and west of Superior do not have the knee jerk anti-Alternative Business Structures (ABS) bent that others do. They seem to be more willing to carefully consider the advantages to the public of new ownership structures, and are far more open to following our brothers and sisters in Australia and the UK. Afterall the template for allowing outside investment in law firms is there for the taking, and has been for some time. No need to re-invent the wheel.

The Federation of Law Societies of Canada is studying ABS, as are many provincial law societies – the typically Canadian death-by-a-thousand-studies approach. And we can already safely assume that there will never be consensus across the country on this matter since British Columbia has already made the mistake of tossing out the idea, and here in Upper Canada, I expect a similarly misguided “no”.

But then again why should consensus be necessary?

What would happen if a group of western provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba for example) decided to strike out on their own and allow ABS-type structures in their jurisdictions?

Outside of these provinces, nothing would happen – at first.

The three western amigos would endure some disapproving looks and comments from others, but people residing in these great provinces would gain immensely through more affordable legal services – and certainly access to justice is in the public interest, is it not?

Lawyers and law students in these forward-thinking provinces would be able to create and become part of new exciting players in the legal services industry – allowing greater career choice and greater career satisfaction (we should all keep in mind Megan Seto’s award-winning essay “Killing Ourselves”).

ABS-type firms in these rebel provinces who wished to operate elsewhere in Canada would take advantage of the National Mobility Agreement allowing 100 days of practice in another province. And it would not take too much creativity to set up the appropriate structure that would allow the operation of an office in empire-held territory (yes, the Star Wars references are intentional) beyond those 100 days.

It would not be long before political pressure would be brought to bear in other provinces seeking to bring affordable legal services to their citizens. It would be impossible for local law societies to continue the self-interested charade of claiming ABS is bad, ineffective or not-needed. And if local law societies did remain intransigent, provincial governments looking to win votes would pass legislation allowing ABS – and perhaps even removing self-regulation of lawyers.

In short, once the snowball starts rolling in any province it will be unstoppable.

Will the West save the legal profession in Canada?

We can only hope so.

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Comments

  1. Mitch,
    There is precedent for these 3 provinces working together to change things: the CPLED program was jointly developed by the law societies of MB, SK and AB and operates to provide a firm educational foundation for articling students in these three provinces.
    There is something about these three law societies, or their leadership, that makes innovation possible. I think you may have stumbled onto something here.

  2. I like the snowball analogy, Mitch. One problem is that the prairies are largely flat, and so, regrettably, the snowball’s journey may by short…unless more forward-thinking people get behind and push to help roll that snowball along.

    Thanks for the push. Who’s next?

  3. I am not sure that the ABS-type firms would have any direct effect on mental illness in the profession but, it would make a very interesing and worthwhile research project. As Megan Seto has pointed out, “Aside from alcohol, gambling is a common addiction amongst lawyers because of easy access to client trust funds and monies.” It is access to justice, in the public interest, that makes this model worthy of consideration rather than trying to link it to a possible preventative measure against “Killing Ourselves”. One would think that if consensus, among Law Societies and the profession, had ever worked the profession would not have earned the title “winners of the most depressed workers.” The West can’t save anybody else but they could provide innovative and affordable legal services to all Canadians. I will add my push, who’s next?

  4. The Western provinces have also cooperated in the area of law reform. The consortium of Western Canada Law Reform Agencies (WCLRA) combined resources from the four provincial law reform agencies with a view to facilitate harmonization of laws where uniformity would be beneficial. For example, WCLRA recommended uniformity across the Western provinces in legislation governing enduring powers of attorney (EPAs). Specifically, uniformity regarding the recognition of EPAs, duties of attorneys under EPAs and safeguards against misuse of EPAs was thought to be a benefit. The WCLRA’s work can be viewed at the following site http://goo.gl/5vIog

  5. Mitch’s observation about the open-minded attitude of the West is consistent with my recent experience. Last week I was invited to participate in Insight’s Major Business Agreements conference in Calgary. I lead a workshop on “Project Management: what it is and why it is relevant to complex commercial transactions” followed the next day by a presentation on “Transactional Project Management Strategies for Lawyers”.

    Often lawyers from the East are conceptually quite receptive to the Legal Project Management points I raise however they take a while to warm up to the idea that they personally need to make any changes to their approach to the practice of law. Conversely I found that numerous lawyers from the West immediately understood the benefit of making changes and jumped to the next step of figuring out how to incorporate the concepts, tools and techniques presented into their practices for the benefit of themselves, their firms and their clients. In an ever shrinking world this practical, client oriented approach will serve the West well in the near term and the profession well in the long term.

    Needless to say I am doing my best to contribute to the push.

  6. Speaking as 19-year sole practitioner in a small BC town taking on low-paying legal aid files, constantly shaving back my fees or even working pro bono trying to make the justice system work for my family law clients, I would love to know how this “ABS” model is supposed to bring more affordable legal services to the public….or are we just living on different planets?

  7. Joe, my understanding is that the ABS model (UK & Australia) is an investment and market place driven competitive business model for selling affordably legal services globally. Perhaps I should have qualified my sweeping statement regarding “all Canadians” by including the phrase, “those dealing in this specific business sector”. It is clear that you have admirable qualities which represent one extreme of current legal practices and professional career opportunities. I think it was Lord Hunt in the UK who said, “The rule of law counts very little without access to justice” and that holds true in licensing of ABS. I hope someone can answer your question because quite frankly, I don’t think the two are compatible. Now I think I can safely say we are living on the same planet.

  8. Great post Mitch – we enoyed having you here.

    National mobility started in Western Canada too. Perhaps you are on to something.

    We are closely following the experience in the UK. Who knows? If there is a positive public interest, on balance, then we have to explore ABS further.

    Carsten