Watershed: The CBA Futures Report

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This morning, the Canadian Bar Association released the widely anticipated Final Report of its CBA Legal Futures Initiative, “Futures: Transforming The Delivery Of Legal Services In Canada.” I had the benefit of receiving an advance copy a few days ago, so I’ve had time to review the report and prepare some thoughts.

My primary thought is this: The CBA’s report constitutes a watershed moment for the legal marketplace in Canada, and possibly in North America. No document like this has ever been produced by a legal organization on this continent; the only reasonable comparison I can draw (albeit obviously not as groundbreaking) is Britain’s Clementi Report, released nearly 10 years ago. That’s how significant I think the CBA Futures Report could turn out to be: it has the potential to help usher in a new era in legal services on this side of the Atlantic, and to utterly remake the Canadian legal market in any event.

Here’s a link to the full report, one to its executive summary and 22 recommendations, and one to an article in the CBA’s National magazine outlining its major points. This post identifies what I think to be the report’s most important recommendations, with accompanying commentary. I won’t touch on every recommendation, just the ones that I think have the greatest potential impact.

A few key points, however, at the outset:

1. This Report is not CBA policy, not yet anyway: in order for that to happen, the report must be approved by the CBA’s Governing Council. Normally, if I recall my CBA procedures correctly, that vote would occur at the association’s next mid-winter meeting in February 2015. Council might adopt the report in its entirety; it might also adopt only some of its recommendations, and it’s possible (although I think very unlikely) it could reject the whole thing. The next several months of debate and discussion should help indicate which way this will go.

2. The CBA, in case you’re not aware, is solely a lawyer advocacy group. It has no regulatory function, although it frequently advocates in the public interest and makes suggestions to the provincial law societies, which do exercise the statutory regulatory role. So even if CBA Council adopts this report in its entirety, that still doesn’t change the governance of the Canadian legal profession. I imagine, however, that Canada’s 14 law societies might well consider the report to be persuasive evidence (especially in Ontario, where a similar committee is poised to deliver a report on ABSs next spring).

3. I had no input, in case you were wondering, into the direction or content of the Report (I worked at the CBA for 10 years, ending in 2009). I facilitated a #CBAFutures Twitter chat earlier this year, and I provided some informal advice about communications and social media approaches for the project the year before that, but that was the extent of my involvement: this report arrived as new to me as it is to you.

With those points in mind, here we go:

1. Flexibility in Business Structures

Lawyers should be allowed to practise in business structures that permit fee-sharing, multidisciplinary practice, and ownership, management, and investment by persons other than lawyers or other regulated legal professionals.

Nothing like starting with a bang, is there? The Futures Committee recommends a nearly complete liberalization of the regulations that govern lawyers’ business structures. MDPs aren’t all that dramatic a change anymore — they’re already available in some Canadian jurisdictions, albeit with various restrictions on non-lawyer control — but fee-sharing with non-lawyers is a major development, one that hasn’t received as much attention recently but that could have a significant impact on solo and small-firm practices.

But the big-ticket item — the one that will dominate headlines and conversations — is the recommended approval of law firm ownership, management, and investment by non-lawyers. Note that there are no qualifiers, here or elsewhere in the report, about controlling percentages of ownership. Scotland, for example, allows up to 49% non-lawyer ownership in order to maintain lawyer control, and British Columbia’s 2011 report on Alternative Business Structures spoke approvingly of this middle way. The CBA, by contrast, has gone all in — and wisely, I think. Minority non-lawyer ownership is neither fish nor fowl: too much control for traditionalists, but not enough control to actually change the way firms run, leaving nobody happy. If you’re going to start a revolution, you don’t bring toy guns to the barricades.

The CBA, to its credit, has struck at the heart of the argument over how lawyers should be permitted to structure their businesses. Recommendation #1 will be seen, correctly, as the crux of this report and the vanguard of the recommendations that follow, and it will be the main battleground between traditionalists and liberalizers. If this recommendation is defeated or watered down before adoption, this report loses much of its impact, and many of the subsequent recommendations, even if passed, will feel toothless. If it’s approved, everything afterward will change.

4. Alternative Business Structures

Non-lawyer investment in legal practices should be permitted, but only on a carefully regulated basis as follows:

[My summary of what look like the key conditions:

  • An ABS (along with its lawyers) is to be regulated exactly as a law firm would be, with the same fiduciary, ethical, candour, and conflicts obligations to clients as a law firm has, and it must advise clients solely in their interests;
  • Non-lawyers can deliver legal services if they’re effectively supervised and controlled by lawyers;
  • The ABS, its owners and its shareholders may not access privileged client information without express client consent and then only for the client’s benefit;
  • The ABS must purchase legal malpractice insurance no less than required for lawyers but increasing with the size of the ABS.]

None of these restrictions seems unreasonable to me: most seem simply to confirm that the level of regulatory scrutiny currently applied to law firms should be applied in equal measure to an ABS. That’s no small thing: the report might have recommended higher governance standards for ABSs, but it did not.

The requirement of lawyer supervision of non-lawyer legal service providers is one that is already applied within most law firms anyway, and while it’s possible this requirement might eventually prove unnecessary, there’s certainly no harm in adding it now, especially if it helps calm traditionalists’ fears (ditto for the insurance requirement).

5. Fee-sharing with and Referral Fees to Non-Lawyers

The FLSC Model Code Rules should be amended to permit fee-sharing with non-lawyers and paying referral fees to non-lawyers, subject to the following:

[My summary of what look like the key conditions:

  • Existing conflict, confidentiality, privilege, and candour rules fully apply;
  • The client must receive full disclosure of, and discuss with the lawyer the relationship with, the fee-sharer and of the shared fee, which itself must be fair, reasonable, and fully accounted; the fee cannot be contingent and the referral cannot be “exploitive”;
  • The lawyer and client must discuss client expectations arising from the referral and mutually agree on the basis of the retainer.]

This recommendation should be most relevant and useful to solos and small-firm lawyers, because it should provide them with alternative sources of revenue (and giving firms access to novel financing sources is one of the main purposes of liberalization). What I like best about this recommendation, though, is that it brings out into the open all the fears and suspicions that lawyers have always carted around concerning fee-splitting with the dreaded “non-lawyers,” and it forces us to confront them head-on.

It’s a (generally unspoken) article of faith among traditionalists that fee-sharing with non-lawyers inevitably “corrupts” the legal profession, although to my knowledge, no one has established this belief through either sound argument or specific examples. I’d listen to those arguments if they were forthrightly made and stood up to scrutiny; but rarely is either the case. This recommendation reads like a refutation of lawyers’ unconscious assumption that non-lawyers are fundamentally less moral and ethical than we are; I look forward to hearing someone argue that assumption explicitly, in public.

6. Delivery of Non-Legal Services by MDPs and ABSs

MDPs and other forms of ABSs should be permitted to deliver non-legal services together with legal services on the basis that [the same client , confidentiality, and ethical protections that we've encountered already, but with this interesting addendum:] If the public interest demonstrably requires that some non-legal services should not be provided together with legal services, the rules should so provide. Otherwise there should be no restrictions. 

Evolutionary Road

These new entities probably will want to deliver non-legal services as well, so it makes sense to start creating a regulatory framework for that (although it will be very interesting to see how lawyers choose to define “non-legal services,” and what impact that definition might have on subsequent attempts to enforce the “unauthorized practice of law”).

But that last sentence is intriguing: it sets up a presumption in favour of the authorization of non-legal services delivery, overcome only by a demonstrable public interest. The report could have created the opposite burden: no non-legal services, unless the ABS can demonstrably show there is no threat to the public interest. The report chose not to do so.

8. Compliance-Based Entity Regulation

Compliance-based regulation of legal practices should be adopted to promote ethical best practices as a supplement to existing rule-based regulation of individual lawyers. Under compliance-based regulation:

  • law firms would be required to register with the law societies;
  • law firms become regulated entities upon registration;
  • law firms would be required to designate a lawyer with whom the law society may deal on behalf of the law firm and who is responsible for overseeing law firm regulatory compliance; and
  • regulation of law firms would include the requirement of supplementary compliance-based regulation to promote ethical best practices.

Now, this is interesting. As mentioned above, the CBA itself has no regulatory powers, and the law societies have always politely made it  clear that such issues are entirely within their jurisdiction. But compliance-based entity regulation is an idea whose time is rapidly approaching, if it’s not already here: Australia and England have already adopted it to varying degrees, and some Canadian law societies are taking a very close look at it. The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, in particular, is making groundbreaking progress in this direction, and Ontario’s ABS Working Group has also explored the issue. Approval by CBA Council of this regulatory approach would be interpreted as a strong vote of confidence in this direction and could signal a tipping point towards its widespread adoption in Canada.

10. Effective Supervision of Non-Lawyers

The FLSC Model Code Direct Supervision rule should be revised to require effective supervision rather than direct supervision. …

This recommendation, previewed in #4, goes on to explain and qualify this approach in some detail, but the key distinction has already been made: substituting “effective” for “direct” supervision. The practical outcome is to relieve lawyers of the need to hover over their non-lawyer employees, monitoring or checking everything that they do, which “direct supervision” implies. “Effective” suggests that as long as there are systems and procedures in place that work to maintain acceptable standards of conduct and activity by non-lawyers, the lawyer need not concern himself or herself with more than the normal supervisory process applied to trusted colleagues of any description.

19. Structured, Rigorous and Consistent Pre-call Training

There should be a structured, rigorous, and consistent approach to pre-call training to ensure new lawyers have all the skills and knowledge required to practise safely and effectively.

This looks like a reference to the struggling articling system, which is in the throes of upheaval and can’t be asked to function much longer as a de facto competence qualification process. The key word here is “training,” which is quite a different concept than “experience,” the usual way in which articling is described. Articling is indeed a great way to “experience” what it’s like to be a lawyer; but that’s not the same thing as being given “training” in how to be a lawyer. I wonder if this isn’t a backhanded vote of confidence for Ontario’s Law Practice Program, which could offer an alternative qualifying route to articling, one that emphasizes “training” over “experience.”

21. Parallel Legal Programs

Educational providers should consider creating parallel programs in areas such as legal technology, in college or other environments, or incorporated into law school education, to educate and train new streams of legal service providers which may include lawyers.

Many of the recommendations in this report touch on legal education, but they’re not nearly as sweeping as those related to the regulation of lawyers and their business structures. Perhaps that’s an acknowledgement that the CBA, like other organizations, isn’t in a position to bring about any sort of change in law schools, no matter how much such change might be needed and desired. But still, the report has no difficulty stepping directly into the law societies’ regulatory back yard, so one has to ask why a similarly bold incursion wasn’t made onto law schools’ lawn.

In any event, this is an excellent suggestion, one that law schools should rush to explore and perhaps implement. It’s increasingly obvious that new legal professionals with innovative skill sets and job descriptions will grow in the years to come, at the expense of traditionally educated law students. Law schools looking for a growth area should already be drafting curricula for Legal Knowledge Engineers, Legal Process Managers, and the like — before someone else does. There are now more than 5,000 trained paralegals in Ontario, not one of whom received his or her paralegal training from a law school. It would be a shame for the law schools to miss the same boat twice.

22. Continuing Professional Development

Continuing professional development should be designed to meet lawyers’ needs through the stages of their careers and reflect identified and emerging client needs. Legal regulators should adopt consistent outcome-based national standards for CPD. Research should be undertaken to measure any link between quantity or input-based CPD and competence.

This is the report’s final recommendation, and it caught me by surprise. I’ve written before about the fundamental problems with how CLE is mandated and delivered, especially the problem of demonstrating its effectiveness. This recommendation tackles these issues and more, declaring that CPD’s purpose is to meet the evolving needs of lawyers and clients (which reads to me like a call for more practice- and client-related information and training), that there should be CPD standards grounded in practical outcomes, and that the assumption that traditional CPD correlates with competence should be tested (that last point, if studied and debunked, could change CPD worldwide). Everyone will have their own rooting interest for one of these recommendations; this is mine.

As mentioned, I’ve only highlighted some of the report’s recommendations; others might strike you as more significant, and you might have a different take on the ones I’ve explored. If so, let us know what you think in the comments. I truly have no idea if CBA Council will approve this Report, partially or in its entirety, and whether such approval would prompt one of more law societies to implement some of these recommendations through regulatory review. The Report has only just entered the public sphere, and the forthcoming commentary and conversations should be fascinating.

But I go back to my opening assessment: I’ve seen a lot of reports from a lot of organizations about “the future of law,” and I’ve never seen one as powerful, wide-ranging, and apparently serious as this one. Several U.S. sates, as well as the American Bar Association (through its new Commission on the Future of Legal Service Delivery) are considering many of the issues highlighted above; I can’t help but think that this report could be cited as persuasive authority by those who favour (as I do) the liberalization of legal market regulation and legal service delivery. No matter what changes actually result from this report, its release changes the conversation about legal regulation in North America.

Jordan Furlong is a lawyer, consultant, and legal industry analyst who forecasts the impact of the changing legal market on lawyers, clients, and legal organizations. He has delivered dozens of addresses to law firms, state bars, law societies, law schools, judges, and many others throughout the United States and Canada on the evolution of the legal services marketplace.

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3 Responses to “Watershed: The CBA Futures Report”

  1. Allison Wolf

    Jordan, thanks for this timely summary of key points! So appreciated! I am also now encouraged to now go to the report itself and read it in its entirely. My thanks.

  2. Dustin Cole

    Let the revolution begin!
    What the CBA proposes is truly profession-changing. All this aimed at a profession whose overseers in many jurisdictions, will not provide continuing legal education credit for programs on practice management or business development.
    Add together non-lawyer investment in or complete ownership of law firms and multidisciplinary practices, and the revolution truly begins. Where does “multidisciplnary” begin and end? Imagine a personal injury firm with an auto body shop, a medical facility, a financial planning department and a funeral parlor. Imagine a family law firm with a therapy group, a financial planner and a baby-sitting service. Or an estate planning firm with a memory-care facility.
    Crazy? Wait a while.
    One of the endemic problems law firms face is that they are too profitable. In other words, their profit margins are, by any normal business standards, enormous. The average profitability of a small to midsize firm is 45 to 55%. The average profit margin for a grocery store in a good year is 2%. The unintended consequence of this profit margin is that lawyers seldom focus on efficiency or good business practices.
    When nonlawyers manage law firms, the fur will begin to fly. And for a profession whose entire thinking is based on precedent, the result will be earthshaking. Systemization, streamlining, efficiency, productivity, focus, selectivity – all that I have emphasized over the years – will become gospel.
    Exciting. And long, long overdue. Let’s see what delaying tactics the American Bar Association will use to attempt to stem the tide of change.

  3. Ann Lee Gibson

    Jordan, great summary and commentary. Thanks for contributing this to the legal community’s conversation on this topic.

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