Earlier this month I was invited to the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Alternative Business Structures symposium. It was a bringing together of international speakers, thinkers and interested parties to discuss the possibility of allowing Alternative Business Structures (ABS) in Ontario – read: allowing outside investment in legal services providers, as is permitted in the UK and Australia.
Kudos to Benchers, Susan McGrath and Malcolm Mercer for organizing the event.
For those of us who were there, the consensus seemed to be that if ABS was allowed in Ontario the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse would not descend upon our province.
In fact, there also seemed to be consensus that ABS could provide for more innovative ways to deliver legal services because of the injection of fresh capital. And while there are no guarantees that an ABS-friendly Ontario would create innovation, it would create a better ecosystem in which legal service innovation could flourish due to the injection of fresh capital to fund those innovations.
Naysayers claim that the important role that lawyers play in society requires lawyers to be independent of influences that will compromise their ability to champion their clients’ interests against the state and major actors in society. That independence from other influences means, at the individual level, that clients will receive assistance from uncompromised advisors and, at a system level, that the profession is not controlled by the state or major enterprises. As such lawyers should not practice in economic association with non-lawyers so as to ensure this independence.
This argument has some merit if lawyers who are in economic association with non-lawyers, were immune from our current duties, values and regulations – but, they would not. ABS does not change any core values.
This argument would also have some merit if lawyers altruistically place the interests of their clients and society above their own personal interests……
I could go on, but Noel Semple’s paper, found here, deals with these issues in much greater detail.
Logic suggests that there is no rational reason to oppose ABS in Ontario or in the rest of Canada.
But, as Professor Bill Henderson remarked today at the Ark Knowledge Management Conference, “Reason is an ineffective tool in this environment.”
Those opposed to ABS are increasingly governed by fear, rather than reason.
The question then becomes, will today’s Benchers leave a legacy of inertia fuelled by fear?
Or one of fresh-thinking for the benefit of the public interest, fuelled by a desire to create an ecosystem in which legal services can be delivered in better, more innovative ways?