Those caught up in the legal futures discourse in Canada can’t help but notice something important – the future has already arrived.
While some see the need to adapt to changing times as an obstacle to be overcome, entrepreneurs and innovators have already profited by taking a different perspective – and the Canadian Bar Association is encouraging others to follow their lead.
“We see the challenges facing the profession as an opportunity to be creative, to be innovative; to break down the walls of the legal profession’s box and find new ways to do the things that we are best equipped to do, ways that better resonate with clients,” says Fred Headon, CBA past-president and chair of the association’s Legal Futures Initiative, which presented its report, Futures: Transforming the delivery of legal services in Canada, to CBA Council in August. The report is the result of two years of research and consultation by the Futures Initiative. Its 22 recommendations underline the need for immediate action on a number of fronts, particularly at the regulatory level.
One of the report’s key – and in Canada, most novel – recommendations calls for non-lawyer investment in legal practices.
“Current regulations restrict the ownership of law practices, and also limit interaction with non-legal professionals, such as social workers or accountants,” says Headon. “Lawyers need to be able to work more closely with other professionals to meet client expectations about holistic solutions and to benefit from the knowledge of other professionals to help develop new ways of delivering legal services.”
Another area that is ripe for reimagining is legal education – who delivers it and how; the kind of practical experience necessary for the completion of a degree; and the need for meaningful continuing education. The definition of “legal practice” is also a target for reinvention.
“There are already vastly different ways of practising law and vastly different client needs,” the report says. “We expect that even more different career paths will become available in coming years.” Job ads for 21st-century holders of legal degrees could seek knowledge engineers, legal process analysts, legal project managers, experts in online dispute resolution or legal risk managers, to name just a few categories.
“Whether these disciplines do indeed flourish will depend on having a legal profession that is appropriately trained and sufficiently innovative to develop new and improved services for clients.”
As the report reminds us repeatedly, the client needs to be returned to the centre of the legal services map – if what you’re doing doesn’t work for the client, then it doesn’t work, period.
“Clients aren’t phoning lawyers to take care of the things lawyers should be doing – and it’s not just a matter of cost, it is also a matter of how we work with them,” says Headon. “If clients are going elsewhere to have their legal needs met – and statistics show they are – then obviously something needs to change.”
While the report’s 22 recommendations have yet to be approved, Headon says he’d like to galvanize the association into taking some steps immediately.
“Many of the changes called for in the Futures report have the responsible liberalization of the regulations governing the legal profession as their starting point and these are balanced with proposals for new forms of regulation that will assist in protecting the public while supporting the transformation of the profession.. So I will encourage the CBA to get in front of law societies to push for regulatory change on behalf of the lawyers for whom it speaks.”
Headon will also encourage the CBA to act as an “innovation facilitator” by giving consideration to ideas such as a legal services incubator; developing an investment fund for innovation; and creating scholarships and awards for innovation.
“Going out on a limb professionally requires more than just an entrepreneurial spirit, it takes a support network too – and the CBA, as the voice of the legal profession in Canada, should be one of the threads in that net.”