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.