For generations, Canada provided refuge and opportunities for individuals seeking a home where they could build a good life. Our strong legal system remains the foundation on which that home was built, offering protections to those who faced persecution for reasons such as the colour of their skin or their political or religious beliefs. On April 17, 1982, Canada enshrined those protections in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, declaring that equality under the law is fundamental to the quality of life of its citizens.
Since then, Canada’s commitment to equality and justice – a real source of pride for most Canadians – has been celebrated on April 17, known as Law Day. But we cannot rest on our laurels as a society or as a profession. Our system is not perfect. The wheels of justice can be ponderously slow. The needs and expectations of clients are changing. Now – as the traditional way of doing business shifts and new pressures threaten the ability to deliver on the promise of our rights and freedoms – is the time for lawyers to examine their changing roles and for the profession to clarify its responsibilities as advocate for the rule of law and a protector of the justice system.
It’s time, as David Bowie sang, to turn and face the strange.
The Canadian Bar Association, the national voice of more than 37,000 lawyers, has launched two initiatives that will examine the state of the legal profession, position its members for the new normal, and launch a new conversation on access to justice.
The CBA Legal Futures Initiative, the first comprehensive study of its kind in Canada, is canvassing clients and the lawyers who represent them in order to develop ideas and new approaches to help the profession and institutions meet this challenge. The Envisioning Equal Justice initiative will bring together stakeholders to discuss how to meet their shared responsibility to improve access to justice, starting with a summit April 25-27 in Vancouver.
The Futures Initiative seeks to identify the economic, social, legal and technological factors that are likely to change the legal marketplace in the next decade, and as part of that, to assess how client expectations are likely to shift in that time. From there, the CBA will look at what the legal industry and educational institutions need to do to ensure that everyone can adapt to the changing environment, and develop practice tools to keep lawyers relevant and effective into the next decade and beyond.
The first phase of the initiative focused on that foundational research; Phase II will focus on consultation with legal industry stakeholders.
The CBA will share its research results over the next few months, and invite both lawyers and their clients to join a discussion about their vision for the future of the profession.
The legal profession isn’t the only sector feeling the effects of struggling global and local economies, a chronic lack of resources and the relentless demands of ever-changing technology; all parts of our society are having to change the way they live and work. But the sea change facing lawyers is making everyone queasy.
“There is a growing and widespread expectation that the legal marketplace is set to undergo substantial change, if not transformation,” says legal futurist Richard Susskind. Lawyers must adapt – or go the way of the dinosaur.
Today, some of the work lawyers do can be done just as well with computer programs and for much less money. Clients are demanding greater transparency from their legal counsel and more flexibility on where work is performed: Must we start with a blank page and a large desk, or could we meet in a store front or perhaps online? Could we divide up the work to be done between us or bring a other professionals? The regulatory and ethical effects of change have ramifications for everyone from law students to senior practitioners.
It will not be an easy transition. But lawyers cannot fall into the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” camp: It is broken, and without a fix we risk becoming irrelevant in a world of changing client expectations. Think of Kodak: the camera giant patented the first digital camera but concentrated on what it did best – film – until it went bankrupt.
However, there has been movement; many are coming to the realization that they can no longer ignore the fact that the world is moving forward. The discussion about how best to educate and train the next generation of lawyers is already ongoing – started, in many cases, by law students themselves. Thought leaders are talking about new business structures and innovative ways of practising, and early adopters are starting to put those ideas into action.
The question is will the rest of the profession insist it knows better and resist client demands and market forces or will it get out in front and have a hand in shaping its own destiny, adapting its role to the new realities?
The initiatives CBA has launched reflect our belief that Canadians are better served if lawyers from across the country meet the challenge- and deliver on the promise. We want to lay the foundation for a new way to practice law. The discussion starts in June. Join us.
Fred Headon is the incoming president of the Canadian Bar Association and chair of the CBA Legal Futures Initiative.