MCLE’s new look

The cover story for National‘s March 2008 edition will explore mandatory continuing professional development, or MCPD, which will be up and running in Canada less than a year from now. If you’re from England, Wales, Australia, or any of the 43 US states with MCLE regimes, it might surprise you to learn that no Canadian jurisdiction currently mandates ongoing professional development among its members. If you’re from Canada, it might surprise you to learn that a Canadian jurisdiction is going to do just that.

A little less than three months ago (November 7/07), the Law Society of British Columbia’s Lawyer Education Committee released what I expect will one day be seen as a landmark report on MCPD. Earlier this month, the law society accepted the committee’s recommendation for a limited CPD regime in B.C. starting in January 2009. Other provinces are talking about MCPD to a greater or lesser extent, including Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, but none currently intends to go as far as B.C. is going. I recommend the final report, and its interim antecedent, for a thorough and impassioned exploration of the state of post-call legal education in Canada and worldwide.

For me, however, the landmark nature of the report doesn’t arise so much from the new mandatory status of CPD. One way or another, either through law society requirement or through outside intervention by the marketplace or the state, the days when lawyers could choose whether or not to upgrade their skills and knowledge are coming to an end. What’s really promising about the B.C. decision is the broad range of approved CPD activities. Continue Reading

Virtually legal

I’ve just assigned a feature article for the April/May 2008 issue of National that aims to explore the future of the sole practitioner. As I noted in a previous post, I’m worried about the near-term prospects for solos, especially in smaller centers, but I’m bullish on their chances down the road, so long as they’re willing to rethink their business models and invest in technology and innovation. Two recent articles make me think that the brighter future for smaller practices might arrive sooner than anticipated.

Stephanie Kimbro is a North Carolina solo who operates a virtual law office. In a guest post at Susan Cartier Liebel’s Build A Solo Practice LLC blog, Kimbro describes her wholly web-based practice: no physical office quarters, secure personal home pages for clients, and a state-wide client base that can access its files 24/7. She provides unbundled services, bills and collects over the Internet, and competes with big firms using just the merest fraction of their overhead costs. Best of all, she’s in control of her own time and her own life. She’s already heard from other solos who want to license her homegrown software application and launch similar VLOs.

Further north in Pittsburgh, we find the Delta Law Group, two lawyers who have created, if possible, an even more innovative virtual firm. New clients are met by a partner who videotapes the detailed first consultation and then outsources the file to one of several local solos and specialists. Like Kimbro’s firm, Delta provides its clients with a secure extranet to follow the progress of their matters and conducts its administrative tasks online. Delta profits from an extremely low overhead as well as from access to a range of talented lawyers in whatever field of expertise is required.

These virtual firms obviously have their limitations — for example, they can’t take on huge or complex matters — but today’s small practices have the same strictures, serve the same kinds of clients and take on the same typical matters. The difference is that these firms liberate their lawyers from the burden of overhead, empower their clients with access and choice, acquire clients hundreds of miles away, and hire talented lawyers only for the duration of a single file. Oh, and they can afford to charge very reasonable rates. None of it would be possible without the Internet, or without an openness by these lawyers to innovation.

Small, flexible, accessible, affordable, and turn-on-a-dimeable — that’s what tomorrow’s solo and small firms will look like. It seems that, in some quarters at least, tomorrow has arrived early.

Law firm size: past, present and future

After making an offhand comment in a previous post, that only about 10% of all Canadian lawyers were in large law firms, I began to wonder if that was, you know, accurate. So I checked the statistical breakdowns available at the Federation of Law Societies of Canada website and confirmed that yes, out of 79,147 active law society members at the end of 2006, 7,282 were in law firms with 51 or more lawyers, so the actual figure turns out to be closer to 9.2%.

But then, as often happens when I come too near a demographic breakdown, I became intrigued by a related issue: this time, the relative increase or decrease in large-firm membership over time.

Obviously, in the popular imagination, the last ten years have seen massive big-firm expansion, thanks mostly to steady growth by established players like McCarthys and Gowlings or mergers of smaller regional players into megafirms like BLG or Faskens. That perception has been aided by trade magazines like Lexpert that focused on the biggest firms (and a few high-profile urban boutiques) to the exclusion of other law practices. At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve also heard about the challenges facing sole practitioners and lawyers in smaller centers, the difficulties competing with title insurers and paralegals, and we would tend to expect that the day of the solo is ending.

Well, I ran the numbers and came up with a few charts that might be of interest. First of all, I compared types of private law practices in 1996 and 2006: Continue Reading

Going to town

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the numerous factors leading to the continuing contraction of the legal profession in smaller urban centers and in rural outposts. Here’s another one: competition for legal talent. Large-center practice is operating at unprecedented levels of profitability these days; even if small-center practices were still reasonably feasible, large-center practices are now so lucrative that it’s hard for any but the most diehard devotees of small-town life to pass up the opportunities in urban Canada.

The law societies of British Columbia and Ontario have produced reports on this subject, and both identify it as a serious matter for the profession. I’m not entirely sure that it is, for a couple of reasons.

First, that belief presumes that a shortage or absence of lawyers in small centers results in reduced access to justice in those locations. Lawyers have long believed that only they can really provide legal services competently, even as the alternative legal services market (primarily paralegals, but also including title insurers and do-it-yourself will CDs) continues to flourish every year. It would hardly behoove the LSUC, for instance, to maintain that lawyers are a sine qua non for access to justice when the LSUC itself has battled successfully to gain the right to regulate paralegals.

Before we decide that only lawyers’ services pass the threshold of providing access to justice, maybe we ought to let someone else try. If lawyers really want to ensure the best possible world for access to justice, they should help throw open the legal-services marketplace to as many competitors as the market will allow, and let clients sort the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps needless to say, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Continue Reading

Law practice in the 21st century

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 29th, 2006.

Earlier this month, I visited San Francisco for the first time. I’d long been fascinated by the thought of a city built on a geological time bomb, and walking its streets was quite an experience.

Everyone knows there’ll be a massive seismic rupture underneath the city someday. But San Franciscans are neither hot nor bothered by it; they go about their lives in their historic city. Their chances of being engulfed in an earthquake remain extraordinarily small, and there’s nothing they can do to prevent it anyway, so why worry?

I think you could draw a few parallels between San Francisco and the legal profession. Great forces are in motion, seismic change is in the offing, and while prosperity reigns today, ripping upheaval is inevitable. I don’t pretend for a moment that lawyers are threatened with annihilation – so long as there’s law, there’ll be lawyers – but after the strike comes, we’ll have trouble recognizing the landscape. Continue Reading