Divided profession, collective governance

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For your consideration: here’s a list of all the governing and/or regulatory bodies for health-care professionals in the province of Ontario:

College of Audiologists and Speech-Language Pathologists
College of Chiropodists
College of Chiropractors
College of Dental Hygienists
Royal College of Dental Surgeons
College of Dental Technologists
College of Dietitians
College of Massage Therapists
College of Medical Laboratory Technologists
College of Medical Radiation Technologists
College of Nurses
College of Occupational Therapists
College of Opticians
College of Optometrists
College of Pharmacists
College of Physicians and Surgeons
College of Physiotherapists
College of Psychologists
College of Respiratory Therapists
College of Denturists
College of Midwives

I’m sure other provinces and states have similar lists of regulatory bodies, many of them statutorily created or empowered. Now here’s a list of all the governing and/or regulatory bodies for legal services providers in Ontario:

Law Society of Upper Canada

If you were a member of the public, mightn’t you conclude from this comparison that while health-care services are diverse and specialized, legal services are one big amorphous blob? Dentists don’t govern psychologists and pharmacists don’t decide who’s fit to provide massage therapy, but apparently, a lawyer is a lawyer is a lawyer.

Of course, we know that’s not true. Law has become just as specialized as medicine, engineering, financial services or any other professional undertaking – arguably, more so. Legal insurers constantly warn us against dabbling in areas outside our expertise, and in today’s fragmented profession, the volume of knowledge outside one lawyer’s expertise can be staggering. Tax lawyers aren’t in a position to judge whether an IP lawyer’s advice was sound, and family lawyers can’t tell you whether that non-compete clause was airtight.

In our single-regulator profession, we cling to a myth that lawyers of all stripes have enough in common to be communally organized and governed. Structurally and culturally, we self-identify as lawyers first, specialists second. But is that really the case anymore?

Take a 31-year-old associate in the litigation department of a national law firm in Toronto with a developing specialty in securities class actions. Take a senior in-house counsel for an established energy company in Calgary who has extensive deal-making experience. Take an early-40s sole practitioner in Truro, Nova Scotia who conducts collaborative family law and does some estates work on the side. I submit that these three lawyers have less in common with each other than they do with countless “non-lawyers” in the communities in which they work and live. Draw some Venn diagrams of the work these lawyers do, the clients they serve, the articles they read and the conferences they attend, and generally, the only overlap will be accidental. In real terms, they might as well belong to different professions.

Our profession retains an assumption that lawyers’ “shared values” bind us together. Press someone to identify those “shared values,” however, and often you hear a lot of equally vague sentiments like “professionalism,” “integrity,” or “respect for the court.” Doctors have their Hippocratic Oath and engineers have that metal ring on their fingers; but lawyers have only a jurisdiction-specific canon of ethics that fewer than one in ten likely has read all the way through since law school. More and more, “law” is a collection of scores of distinct professionals herded together under a single and increasingly inaccurate name. We live in a thousand-room home and we call it one big household.

Why don’t we have a Provincial Pensions and Benefits Law Society, or a State Class Action Litigation Bar? You could argue that economies of scale and reasons of consistency dictate that all types of lawyers should be admitted, tested and disciplined by one regulatory body. But this is the Long Tail business generation, and law is becoming a long-tail industry. It may have made sense, in the less diverse profession of 30 or 40 years ago, to presume that all lawyers shared much the same knowledge and expertise. I don’t think that presumption holds today, and it certainly won’t hold 30 or 40 years from now.

Does this have anything to do with law practice management? Maybe this: those of us who advise lawyers on how to better manage their careers, market their services and relate to their clients can fall into the same lumping-together trap. Considerable amounts of the practice management advice circulated in the legal press and blawgosphere nowadays is pretty generic. Much of it fails to speak to who lawyers specifically are, where they actually practice, and who their clients really are and could be. It’s great advice for the Reasonable Lawyer on the Clapham Omnibus, but it has limited utility to most of the careers lawyers are actually leading.

Obviously, tailored advice is what consultants sell to paying customers behind closed doors, and widely dispersed advice is unavoidably generic. But my larger point is that great difficulty awaits persons or organizations that try to treat lawyers as a mass collective. The larger the group of lawyers you’re trying to serve, the more you’ll have to labour to find common threads among them and the more generic your offerings necessarily will be. Generic is rapidly losing its potency.

What does this mean in practice? More and more, traditional geography-based lawyer organizations will be challenged by leaner groups that cater to specific specialties in specific jurisdictions. General-interest lawyer magazines and newspapers will face even more competition from specialized blogs and RSS feeds. Law schools that aim to prepare students for all possible law-related vocations will be rivalled by institutions that train lawyers to excel in narrow and specific career paths. Full-service consultants who offer a wide range of advisory assistance will lose clients to those who only tell small-town family law practitioners how to maintain interactive Websites.

Modern law practice management tells lawyers to narrow their client base, focus on a specific niche, and develop a specialization that will set them apart from their competitors. The more lawyers do just that, the more challenging it will become to serve, regulate and treat them as a single professional collective.

This post first appeared as a post at the College of Law Practice Management’s blog on April 16, 2007.

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