Lawyers Working Well With Others?

At the recent Canadian Bar Association Legal Conference in Calgary, I had the opportunity to join a panel on the subject of lawyers working effectively with those from other professional backgrounds. The panel focused on the benefits of a cross-disciplinary team approach, arising from the recommendation of the CBA Legal Futures report to permit multi-disciplinary practice arrangements. I opened by pointing out why I think this matters (or ought to matter) to lawyers:

  1. So they’ll be better lawyers (which was the theme of the conference) through greater focus, enhanced skills and a broader knowledge base; and
  2. So that clients will be better served through a more person-centred approach and efficiencies of both time and cost.

My experience with this approach was quite different from that of my co-panelists, informed primarily by my background in the non-profit sector. The first experience I had working with another discipline was when I worked with The Law Society of Manitoba carrying on investigations of complaints about lawyers. While lawyers there were the primary complaints investigators, we worked very closely with the Society’s auditors, who are accountants with expertise in trust accounting rules and following audit trails. In that context, investigating claims related to trust accounts in particular, we relied heavily upon their expertise and often worked hand in hand, each providing expertise and learning from the other.

More recently, my cross-discipline team experience has been with Legal Help Centre of Winnipeg (LHC), a pro bono legal clinic that intentionally uses a multi-disciplinary approach to solving legal problems. We do so because we recognize that for many and especially those unable to afford conventional legal services, legal issues don’t typically arise in a vacuum.

At LHC, lawyers, articling students and law students work in a team approach with students from other professional and educational backgrounds. The primary partners are from social work but we also incorporate students from Criminal Justice, Human Rights and Conflict Resolution programs.

There are ongoing challenges with this approach, some of which were anticipated from the outset. For example, different professions have differing ethical and legal obligations re: confidentiality. A specific challenge arises with respect to the legal obligation to disclose information about child abuse. Lawyers (and those under our umbrella) are excluded from the obligation under Manitoba’s Child and Family Services Act but social workers are not.

Other challenges related to differences in professional language and culture. In some ways, multi-disciplinary teamwork is a bit of a cross-cultural experience. Lawyers have their own language, as do social workers and other professions. We also each have differing ways to approach both problem-solving and the individuals facing those problems. The words we choose often reflect, or even determine the lens thru which we view the issues we are seeking to address. One of our early issues was just this – what do we call the people we see– are they clients or service users or something else? And do they have cases, files, matters or issues?

These challenges aside, we’ve seen numerous benefits to the multi-disciplinary approach we take at LHC:

  • Cross-training of students from different disciplines provides all of them with a broader overall knowledge base
  • This approach provides excellent peer learning opportunities. Conflict resolution skills are not typically taught in law school, but conflict resolution students bring these very useful skills to the Centre. Similarly, social work students have typically received greater and in most cases, better, instruction in interviewing techniques than law students. Students observe and teach one another through working together side by side.
  • For those who seek our help, we provide a better client service by taking a holistic approach to problem-solving and through reducing the number of external referrals required.

There are also efficiencies that result from this approach, including:

  1. Individuals are more likely to receive the help required when there are fewer steps in obtaining that help;
  2. Faster service is possible with different expertise available in-house; and
  3. It frees up those with different areas of expertise to focus on what they know and do best.

I have found there is a perception that lawyers will lose business and/or income through working in collaborative teams. While it is true that lawyers will give up some work, I have to ask whether this is work lawyers are trained or competent to do? A person with an LL.B. may not be the best person to do the job in any case and sharing the responsibilities with other professionals can therefore reduce the likelihood of making an error and being sued or being the subject of a law society complaint.

Savings on malpractice insurance deductibles and professional misconduct defence costs may therefore offset any resulting income loss. At the same time, lawyers are freed to take on and do other work that they are competent to do.

It is also a misconception that any ethical challenges are insurmountable hurdles to a cross-disciplinary collaboration. I mentioned earlier conflicting duties with respect to confidentiality, as an example. At LHC we addressed this challenge early on and determined that we need to ensure that:

  • other professionals are included under the umbrella of confidentiality and privilege as providing services to the lawyer (as set out in the Model Code of Professional Conduct, Chapter 3.3); or
  • other professionals are not part of privileged conversations, through intentionally controlled and limited information sharing.

In either case, the client needs to know where the issues lie and consent to the arrangements in place. At LHC we’ve dealt with this issue explicitly through our Terms of Service, which are reviewed with every client who must sign off on those terms before any help is rendered. In practice, you might include this as part of your discussions around the terms of your retainer agreement.

Other potential issues include conflicting professional duties, such as where the duty to report conflicts with duty to hold information confidential. This could be addressed through informing clients in advance where professionals with conflicting obligations are interviewing in tandem. But if the potential for a disclosure is known to exist, another option is to avoid conducting a joint interview.

There may also be situations where professional goals conflict, such as the lawyer’s duty to zealously advocate for an individual versus a social service provider’s focus on advocating for what is truly best for a whole family.

While some of these circumstances may necessitate strict separation of service provision, this does not mean professionals with different goals and duties should not work together at all. In most circumstances, the risk of ethical conflicts can be managed in advance through development and use of appropriate protocols.

You may say, this is well and good for a pro bono clinic or organization like the Law Society, but how can this work in other settings? In answer, I suggest you take a close look at where it already is happening in other settings and learn from those examples:

  • In-House counsel have long been working in cross-disciplinary teams, involving information technology professionals, accounting and finance and industry specialists.
  • In collaborative family law, therapists, financial planners, accountants, social workers and more work in team approach with lawyers to address issues arising from the breakdown of a family relationship. It’s an approach with well-defined and clearly specified “rules” set out in an agreement that the client signs.
  • Small and solo firm practices often rely heavily upon the services provided by support staff including bookkeepers and paralegals.
  • In larger firms, you’ll find marketing professionals, accounting and payroll specialists, collections staff, paralegals, researchers and librarians working together to support client files.

In other words, this approach isn’t something new at all. What is new, if anything, is the basis for the approach being advocated. Not only is it based in what works for lawyers (which is how many law firms determine how to deliver services) but a cross-disciplinary team approach has its foundation in the express needs of the clients or those seeking legal help.

Through a client’s eyes, a multi-disciplinary approach can make a lot of sense. Other than the more sophisticated client of legal services, many coming to lawyers have an incomplete understanding of the legal and other issues facing them and requiring resolution. They may not see the lines lawyers are quick to draw between legal issues and financial or social issues. And as already noted, there are a number of efficiencies from a client perspective.

Lawyers providing services through a cross-disciplinary team approach have expanded capabilities and are able to serve and meet the needs of their clients to a greater extent. I’d say it’s almost a no-brainer, once you clear the misconceptions and understand the benefits to all involved.

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