Will-writing and the redefinition of “legal services”

Last month, a BBC investigative program called Panorama exposed a wide range of illegal and unethical practices by “will-writers,” advisors who help people prepare wills and who are not lawyers. One result of that broadcast could be a significant clawback of lawyer regulatory power over the legal services marketplace in the UK, with implications for the future of this marketplace globally.

Here are some detailed accounts of the Panorama broadcast and of the resulting controversy. Briefly: the program uncovered several instances of will-writers who exploited their clients through massive overcharging, shoddy workmanship, and even outright fraud. The abusive will-writers were neither lawyers nor (evidently) members in good standing of one of the professional will-writing associations that have evolved with the 2007 passage of the Legal Services Act. That statute divides legal services into “reserved legal activities,” which are exclusive to lawyers, and “legal activities,” which are not exclusive to lawyers and are not otherwise subject to specific regulation. Will-writing is not included in the former category and, therefore, is considered an unregulated activity.

In the wake of the broadcast and the public recriminations that accompanied it, the relevant authorities are now under pressure to take swift action. The Legal Services Board, the overarching regulator of all legal professionals in England & Wales, has promised to fast-track a debate and decision regarding whether will-writing should be added to the list of “reserved legal activities” and given exclusively to lawyers. (The Law Society of Scotland is already pushing such measures forward.) An interview with two officials from the Law Society of England & Wales sums up lawyers’ concerns with the current situation (which will be familiar to all advocates of lawyers’ role in legal services provision):

It is the presence of untrained and unregulated people working in the area that has led to a range of problems that can adversely affect consumers, Clarke and Roberts insist. “A lot of clients don’t understand making a will can be a complex process. They think it should be simple, but often it’s much more involved due to the presence of step-children, property and other assets in other countries and lots of other issues which are a part of modern life,” Roberts notes.

Unregulated will writers who lack legal training often fail to understand the legal complexities themselves. “One I know was going to make a will for a large estate which would have been involved, so he merely suggested everything be left to a trustee who could sort it all out as he saw fit. All solicitors are not infallible, but experienced solicitors will understand how to deal with complex estates and take account of all the eventualities so the testator’s wishes will be realised and the estate can be properly managed,” says Roberts.

You can see where all this is likely to lead: to the designation of will-writing as a reserved legal activity under the Legal Services Act. In one respect, it’s difficult to argue against this turn of events. The abuse of unsophisticated consumers, many of them elderly or impoverished, is repugnant and needs to be stopped in its tracks. Solicitors, as noted, aren’t perfect, but they come with a guarantee of education and training and they are backed by insurance funds that can reimburse clients who’ve been poorly served. Wills and estates, in many cases, are not cut-and-dried matters and they can require sophisticated advice, especially at a time of generational change when demand for estate law help will only rise.

Given all that, making will-writing a reserved legal activity seems like a no-brainer. And yet, there are good reasons for the Legal Services Board to proceed with caution here.

To begin with, it’s not entirely accurate to call will-writing an “unregulated activity.” Consumer protection laws are in force precisely to protect the buyers of commercial services that fall outside specific regulatory schemes; moreover, the last time I checked, fraud is still on the books in Britain as a criminal offence. Provisions already exist in Acts and regulations to protect people from the incompetent and unscrupulous and to prosecute such predators where necessary.

Secondly, the current absence of a specific regulatory system for will-writing doesn’t mean that the only alternatives are full lawyer control or unfettered market freedom. The Institute of Professional Willwriters, one of the recognized will-writing groups, will happily remind you that it is the only organization of its type whose Code of Practice has been approved by the Office of Fair Trading. Self-regulation by the will-writing industry down the road is not out of the question, nor is the creation of a specific will-writing regulatory scheme that doesn’t restrict this area of practice to lawyers.

Thirdly, access to justice issues arise whenever a decision is made to restrict an activity to the legal profession. Part of the reason for the huge upsurge in will-writing services in the UK is that less than half of Britons have a will; considering that lawyers have had every chance to exploit this latent market and have failed to do so, it’s hard to make the case that they should now have exclusive rights to this practice area (especially since lawyer regulation tends to drive up costs). The legal profession and the government jointly own responsibility for a failure to educate the public in this area, with the result that, for example, 67% of consumers wrongly believe all will-writers are solicitors.

Fourthly and most importantly, the whole question of what should constitute a “reserved legal activity” hasn’t received nearly enough scrutiny. That’s the conclusion of a just-released report sponsored by the Legal Services Board and written by Stephen Mayson, the widely respected director of the Legal Services Policy Institute. In his report,

Mayson said he had found the origins of the six activities currently reserved to be “remarkably obscure,” with “little basis for suggesting a common policy rationale that justifies their existence”. For example, he discovered that the conveyancing monopoly came about in 1804 when Prime Minister Pitt the Younger wanted to appease a profession unhappy with his plans to increase taxes on articles of clerkship and practising fees. Professor Mayson said it would be “unwise to consider any particular legal activity for inclusion or exclusion in the absence of a broader set of criteria that could be generally applied.”

So there are good reasons for England & Wales to think twice before reflexively placing the writing of wills under the exclusive authority of the legal profession. But if you’re a North American lawyer who practises something other than wills and estates, and you’ve made it this far into this post, you’re probably wondering what possible relevance this has to you. I’d argue it has great relevance, because this looks like the first major skirmish in what will be a decade-long war over a crucial question: what should be classified as “lawyer services” and what can be classified merely as “legal services”?

We’ve tended to use “legal services” and “lawyer services” more or less interchangeably over the years, such that “legal services” has become a virtual synonym for “the practice of law” (lawyers have not hesitated to encourage this blurring of lines). But the will-writing controversy forces us to think about law-related services that, for reasons of both marketplace efficiency and access to justice, could and perhaps should be kept outside the strict ambit of the legal profession. Granted that a Wild-West free-for-all wills market serves no one’s interests: is the opposite end of the spectrum, wills kept under lawyers’ lock and key, the best alternative? Isn’t the middle ground worth at least some exploration and settlement?

Consider another example, a growing force coming from the opposite direction: legal process outsourcing. Three recent articles explore the impact of LPOs on the traditional big-firm business model, and I recommend a thorough reading of all three:

If I can try to summarize the thrust of three lengthy and insightful pieces, it seems to be that:

  • LPOs and other non-traditional legal service providers are taking a growing amount of once-profitable associate-level work from law firms,
  • the unbundling model upon which these new providers are based is changing client expectations about where and how certain types of legal services are purchased, and
  • the result will be law firms with work of less quantity but higher quality, which will inter alia benefit the quality of a legal career generally.

LPOs, essentially, are forcing law firms (and their clients) to ask the critical question of our times: is a lawyer really the best choice to do X? The answer in many cases is yes, especially when the job calls for the kind of judgment, nuance, skill and wisdom that lawyers bring to the best of their work. These are “lawyer services.”

But in many other cases, the answer is no: all or parts of tasks such as document review, due diligence, electronic discovery, document drafting and production, small-claims court representation, and basic transactions like house purchases, straightforward divorces, and as the current situation in England & Wales suggests, wills and estates, don’t always need a lawyer’s attention. Should the providers of these services, whomever they are, be qualified and trustworthy? Of course. Must they always be lawyers? I think the answer is: of course not.

As time goes on, “legal services” will come to mean “commercial services related to the exercise of law-related rights and the fulfillment of law-related responsibilities,” without the necessary inclusion of lawyers. “Lawyer services” will be a sub-category defined as “legal services that, for reasons of required skill and/or public protection, are provided exclusively by lawyers.” “Legal services” will be offered by a wide variety of domestic and foreign providers, none of whom need to be lawyers; their regulation will be specific to the competence required, and access to these services will be available more widely than when lawyers offered them more or less exclusively. “Lawyer services” will be the cream of what we now consider to be the very deep crop of lawyer activities, only the most challenging and the most valuable to clients.

There’s nothing novel about this kind of distinction in professional services.

  • Richard Susskind quotes the statistic that 4% of health-care services are provided by doctors, while 50% of legal services are provided by lawyers. We accept a distinction between “health” services (delivered by nurses, physiotherapists, massage therapists, psychiatrists, and many other “health practitioners”) and “medical” services (delivered by medical doctors — the word “medical” itself is derived from the Latin for “physician”).
  • When we go to have our teeth checked, we usually spend most of our time with a “dental assistant” and only the last few minutes with the “dentist.”
  • We use “architects” and “engineers” to design our homes and buildings, but we hire “contractors” and “tradespeople” to implement designs and renovations through actual construction — the heavy lifting, literally.

We accept all these situations as normal because the markets for these professional services have evolved to allow the most skilled professionals to do the highest-end, highest-value work and an army of other professionals, para-professionals and skilled craftspeople (usually under specific regulatory or quasi-regulatory regimes) to carry out the rest of the work. Doing it any other way — requiring medical doctors to give flu shots, obliging dentists to deliver teeth-cleaning, requiring engineers to lay bricks — would result in massive system backlogs, huge price increases, and widespread dissatisfaction by both the professional and the client — in other words, pretty much the situation we have now in the legal marketplace.

The legal marketplace, whether some lawyers like it or not, is heading towards the same kind of stratification as other professional fields, to a massive “sorting out” of what lawyers need to do and what they don’t need to do. It’s immaterial whether this is brought about by regulation or the marketplace; in the end, these two forces will be working in virtual lockstep to effect change. There will be a period of disruption, maybe even chaos, as we figure out how certain legal services are best delivered by non-lawyers; it won’t be a tidy process, and there will be damage of the kind suffered by will consumers in the UK (and associates in large law firms). But every marketplace has had to go through this, and if doctors could see their way clear to allow non-doctors to take on the sacred duty of preserving life and promoting health, I think lawyers can bring themselves to make a similar commitment.

This is what the next decade will bring: a Great Sorting Out of demand for legal services, as the market reviews its choices and decides where and from whom it wants to acquire what it needs. As time goes by, the category of “legal services” will grow by volume, while “lawyer services” will shrink by volume; but both categories, paradoxically, will grow in quality. Lawyers in particular will benefit from a task list that requires more sophistication and higher-level skills. For that reason alone, but also because of the ultimate interests of clients, we should be working to narrow our focus on the highest-level work while simultaneously supporting the development of practices and regimes to oversee the more basic work we used to do. It’s anyone’s guess whether our profession will step up to that challenge.

Resolving the legal education disconnect

In conversation last week with a law school professor, the subject of law firms’ tunnel vision when recruiting law graduates came up. Firms focus relentlessly on the students with the highest grades, the professor lamented, even though these students can be one-dimensional performers with an affinity for the academic environment and no competing pressures outside the classroom. Contrast that with an older student, perhaps with a couple of kids and a part-time job, with or without a partner at home, who took an unorthodox route to law school and perhaps struggles to compete with the younger students — but who is still bright, hard-working, experienced and capable of being a standout lawyer. The firms never even look at graduates like that, and an opportunity is missed on both sides.

At first blush, I agreed with this. I’ve complained myself about the relatively unsophisticated approaches to recruitment that many law firms still take. The students most in demand are the top academic performers from the “top” schools, even though there’s nothing beyond the Cravath Theory to prove that students with high law school marks will make the best lawyers. Does a fleet of “A”s guarantee good lateral thinking, business acumen, client awareness or collaborative work habits? Of course not. Yet firms continue to flock to the academic stars while overlooking graduates who despite (or even because of) their unusual backgrounds would make superb lawyers whom clients cherish. Typical narrow-minded law firms.

Then I was struck by this thought: “Hang on. Who’s giving out these marks in the first place?” I turned back to the prof to ask whether the schools don’t bear responsibility of their own. If the older mother of two with a part-time job is more deserving of employment consideration than the 20-something with his nose in the books all year, why is she at the bottom of the graduating class while he’s at the top? Why doesn’t she get the A, if in fact she’s the stronger candidate to succeed?

But even as I asked the question, I already knew the answer. Law schools don’t assess students in terms of their likely success at the bar. They assess them the same way schools everywhere assess all their students — by the satisfactory achievement of knowledge standards, usually expressed in written form in short-term exams and long-term papers. In the same way that IQ tests measure only the taker’s ability to score well on such tests, so too do good marks in law school only measure one’s ability to complete law school courses to the school’s satisfaction. It has nothing to do with whether you’ll be a good lawyer someday. This is not a secret and it’s not a novel discovery. But the idea that law school achievement augurs professional success remains the fundamental assumption underlying law school, and the bar has accepted it for decades. It’s time for that to change.

The problem with using a law degree as the de facto qualification to seek admission to the bar, and the disconnect between the priorities of academia and the practicing bar, have never been so clear. A good example is a report recently released by a task force of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada on the common-law degree. It is not, by most measures, a radical document. It recommends that law societies in common-law jurisdictions adopt a uniform national requirement for entry to their bar admission programs, which has never existed and would certainly be nice to have. It does not recommend that law schools transform their curriculum, nor does it go nearly as far as the Best Practices Report, the Carnegie Report, or the ABA’s recent decision to focus on output measures when certifying law schools.

What the report does recommend is that every law school in Canada teach a stand-alone ethics and professional responsibility course, given the importance of these attributes to the practice of law. This has not gone over well with the law school community, to judge from comments in this Canadian Lawyer article from, among others, widely respected law professor Harry Arthurs:

[H]e finds it odd that the federation “took it upon themselves to lay down what law schools should be teaching and how they should use their resources and what their job is in general. Law societies, much less the federation, have no statutory power to tell law schools what to teach or to what end they should spend their scarce resources,” he says. … While Arthurs notes that the law society has the right to say who it will admit to practice, “they certainly can’t say to law schools, ‘You are going to teach legal ethics, you are going to teach certain skills competencies, and you are going to file a report annually which provides us with detailed information to demonstrate that you’re doing that.’”

Professor Arthurs is, of course, absolutely right. Law schools don’t report to law societies and are under no obligation to teach anything to their students simply because the law societies say so. His comments bring that fact into sharp relief — and should, I think, serve as the launching pad for the profession to rethink its traditional acceptance of the LL.B. or J.D. as the default qualification for entry into the profession. The first three years of its lawyers’ education and training are almost entirely out of the bar’s hands. That should strike the profession’s leaders as unacceptable and should galvanize them into doing something to correct it.

Let me be clear that this is not a call to impinge on law schools’ academic freedom or to take over the schools’ operation. I spent three years in law school, and running one is just about the last thing I’d want to do — they’re complex institutions whose management can be a challenging and thankless task. But they are not designed to be lawyer training facilities, and they are not practice-friendly. I still remember the law prof who told our class, “A students become professors, B students become judges, and C students become very rich lawyers.” I think he meant it to reassure us not to worry so much about grades. But it expressed perfectly the irrelevance of academic distinction to professional success, the self-perpetuating nature of law school achievement, and the remarkably arrogant belief that the highest form of legal accomplishment is the teaching of law.

The bar’s role is not to run law schools — lawyer-run institutions don’t tend to inspire confidence either. The bar’s role is to ensure that its members receive the best training available, in order to ensure the durability of professionalism and high-quality service to clients. I think that obliges the bar to look long and hard at the law degree and decide whether a three-year program over which the bar has no control is an appropriate prerequisite for practice. If the answer is yes, then the profession should quit complaining about what law school does and doesn’t do — lawyers don’t run law schools, and if they don’t care to create an alternative, they have nothing more to say on the subject. But if the answer is no, then the profession is obliged to come up with a prerequisite that it believes does provide appropriate preparation for admission to the bar, over which it does exercise an appropriate degree of control, and for which it bears complete responsibility (at considerable expense, I might add).

Should that come to pass, law schools will suddenly face competition in the lawyer training marketplace. And they’ll face a choice themselves: to maintain their current focus and perhaps risk a massive decline in enrollment and tuition, or to re-engineer themselves and compete directly with lawyer-operated training centers. That’s not a happy choice, and I don’t wish it on the schools gladly. But if and when the bar decides that it can no longer responsibly delegate the first three years of legal training to completely independent third parties, then that choice will arrive. This is a difficult but necessary process we can’t put off any longer.

The UK crucible

North American lawyers have been fretting lately about the effects of this recession and what it means for their future. But the recession is only an amplifier or accelerator of change, not its source, and it doesn’t tell us much about the shape of things to come. If you  really want to know what the future looks like, peer across the Atlantic at the revolution now firmly and irreversibly underway in the United Kingdom. But be prepared before you look — otherwise, you might feel like the valedictorian in Say Anything: “I’ve glimpsed our future. And all I can say is … go back.”

* Last month, the Legal Services Board (the new overall regulator of all UK legal services providers) issued a discussion paper asking for lawyers’ input on what Alternative Business Structures (ABSs) should look like. An ABS allows traditional legal services to be delivered through a vehicle other than the traditional partnership of lawyers — most famously by non-lawyer financing or ownership — and constitutes the keystone change to law firm structure envisioned by the Clementi Report and subsequent Legal Services Act. Responses to the paper are due within two months; ABSs themselves are scheduled to be unleashed in just two years. This excerpt from the paper’s executive summary should make the Board’s mandate and outlook very clear:

For centuries, legislation and professional regulatory rules have tightly restricted the management, ownership and financing of organisations that are permitted to offer legal services. Although the UK’s legal services sector is internationally competitive and highly regarded, these regulatory restrictions have stopped it from realising its full potential. Regulation has limited innovation and competition in the way that legal services are delivered. It has constrained consumer choice and restrained normal market pressures on law practices to deliver their services efficiently and effectively. Regulation has gone beyond what is rightly necessary to protect citizens from the unethical practices of a tiny minority to a framework which has restricted businesses and consumers alike. At the heart of the new regulatory environment for legal services is a process for scaling back these restrictions.

* Earlier this month, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (the lawyer governance body spun off from the Law Society earlier this decade) issued its own complementary consultation paper on ABSs. Here’s a summary posted by leading UK consultant Nick Jarrett-Kerr at Linkedin’s Legal Innovation Group:

“[T]he SRA lists 11 possible models for [ABSs] and asks for comment. They include the current [Legal Disciplinary Practice] model (mainly lawyers, but with some non-lawyer managers), two models of totally externally-owned law firm, the [Multi-Disciplinary Practice], the co-op model (externally owned, providing funeral services, etc., as well as legal), PE investment model, floated company, “hub & spoke” (where a non-licensed hub such as an administration company provides back- and middle-office services to law firms who make up the spoke), the Australian Integrated Legal Holdings model of consolidated ring-fenced firms, not-for-profit firms, and in-house teams.”

* Small-firm and sole-practice lawyers are not taking these developments lightly. The introduction of the ABS model “demonstrates utter contempt for the consumer of legal services,” QualitySolicitors.Com CEO Craig Holt told the BBC. “The solicitor profession faces being all but wiped out by a government seemingly intent on robbing the public of access to good quality, local legal advice.” Mr. Holt’s organization pressed its point at a protest last week outside a UK supermarket chain that, as the current saying goes, could soon be selling legal services along with tins of beans.

* Whatever the merits of their position, lawyers opposed to these changes have legitimate reasons to be anxious. More than 16,000 legal jobs disappeared from the UK in 2008 and 10,000 more are expected to go within the next two years. The prognosis for these unemployed practitioners is ugly: Lawyers who fall out of work have little hope of finding new jobs, with vacancies for associate solicitors down by 95 per cent this year, recruiters said. “It’s the worst year ever, by some margin,” Nick Root, founding partner of Taylor Root, a leading recruitment agency, said. “Those people who are being let go will not get another job.”

And there’s more. Linklaters’ managing partner Simon Davies: “[B]ecause of the changes brought about by the developments of the past year or so, much of that work will never come back – or at least not in the foreseeable future.” Stikeman Elliott’s London managing partner Derek Linfield: “This is like nothing any of us have seen, and no one has any idea how this is going to end up.”

* North Americans might not realize that the recession is hitting the UK and Europe harder than the US and Canada. But the changes to legal practice prompted by the downturn will last well into the recovery. Here are two to get used to. First, the UK government is instituting a reserve auction system for criminal legal aid work that will essentially award legal aid contracts to the lowest bidder in the name of “efficiency,” with predictable effects on the defence bar. Meanwhile, putting a major scare into big firms, gigantic Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto has announced it’s outsourcing large chunks of its legal work to a dozen lawyers with CPA Global in Delhi. Rio aims to cut $100 million from its annual legal budget in the process and free up its internal lawyers for more complex work — and it expects its outside counsel to play along. (More on this in a separate post next week.)

Not everything coming to pass in the UK will migrate to the New World — but a lot of it will, and the changes that do occur are likely to stick. Expect some form of regulatory reform in the US and Canada within the coming decade, law firms forced by regulators or clients to redefine themselves and their business models, more lawyers losing full-time jobs and fewer full-time lawyers hired to replace them, lawyers figuring less and less prominently in the provision of publicly funded legal services, and nastier competition between remaining lawyers for fewer client dollars. Love it, like it, fear it or hate it, but don’t ignore it or pretend it couldn’t happen here — there’s not much here so unique to the UK that it can’t be exported worldwide.

The UK legal profession is entering a trial by fire, a crucible from which it should emerge smaller, leaner, more entrepreneurial by necessity and more captive to the demands of the client marketplace. Take a good look at that crucible, because it’s coming soon to a law practice near you.

The evolution of lawyer regulation

The thing about change is that once it gets rolling, it’s almost impossible to control and can go in directions you neither anticipated nor like very much. That thought occurred to me while reading a report issued last week by the Legal Services Policy Institute, the think-tank division of UK legal training company The College of LawTowards a New Regulatory Structure for Corporate and Commercial Legal Services: Options for Change is just 23 pages long, half of which is a lengthy appendix. But what the report recommends looks to me like an entirely new system of lawyer regulation, one I’m not sure I’m crazy about.

A little background: if you’ve been following the course of events flowing from the Clementi Report and the 2007 Legal Services Act, you’ll know that the UK legal profession is in the midst of redefining itself. On this side of the pond, we mostly hear about the LSA’s provisions to allow alternative business structures and non-lawyer ownership of law firms. But a major element of the reforms involved splitting the Law Society’s previously dual functions of solicitor regulation and representation, on the grounds that the same body could not both govern professionals in the public interest while also advocating for the interests of those professionals.

Regulation of the legal profession in England & Wales is to be the overall province of the newly created Legal Services Board, which launched on Jan. 1 and aims to assume all the powers assigned to it under the LSA by the end of this year. The Board will oversee all the various regulatory bodies for lawyers, such as the Bar Council, the Institute of Legal Executives and the Council for Licensed Conveyancers. Until the Board becomes fully functional, the Law Society technically remains the approved frontline regulator of solicitors, through the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which was partly spun off from the Law Society for this purpose. The SRA remains officially part of the Law Society, but is independent from it. Relations between the two are not always warm, and have just taken a marked turn for the frosty.

This is kind of an interim period in the regulatory overhaul process: the Legal Services Board is active but not yet fully on stream. That’s why some people were taken by surprise last fall when, with one day’s notice to the SRA, the Law Society commissioned a report to review the lawyer regulation process. That report’s author in turn commissioned a sub-report on whether current regulation of law firms serving corporate clients is satisfactory. It’s in the context of this mishmash of reports and political jostling that the Legal Services Policy Institute report was issued and needs to be understood.

The report’s premise, as I read it, is that a single regulatory framework can no longer properly govern the extreme range of solicitors’ practices in England & Wales. More specifically, the traditional framework, geared towards sole and small-firm practice in smaller communities, simply doesn’t work for the major corporate/commercial firms of London and their clients. In areas ranging from defalcations and conflicts of interest to client sophistication and lawyer transfers from other jurisdictions, rules meant for a smaller profession serving private clients constrain and damage global firms serving massive corporate and institutional clients.

The report’s recommended solutions are radical. While nodding towards a midway approach — merely modifying the current SRA regulations for large commercial firms — the report’s clear preference is to create a brand new regulatory regime for these large firms and the lawyers who work within them. This new regulator would create and administer new qualifying criteria and would even bestow a new title for these firms’ lawyers to use (the report refers to these, in uncomfortably Orwellian terms, as “NewReg,” “NewQual” and “NewTitle”). Here’s how the Institute summarizes its case for a new regulatory regime: Continue Reading

Podcast on conflicts of interest

Law21 was quiet for a week while I worked the Canadian Bar Association’s Canadian Legal Conference in Quebec City. Among the highlights for me was moderating a podcast on the CBA’s just-released Final Report of its Task Force on Conflicts of Interest. You can access the podcast by clicking the third link in the right-hand column on the CBA’s Conflicts Home Page.

The podcast, which runs less than 25 minutes, featured three members of the task force: Chair Scott Jolliffe, managing partner of Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, and members Gord Currie, EVP and General Counsel of George Weston Ltd., and Simon Chester, a partner with Heenan Blaikie LLP and fellow Slawyer. We talked about the report’s principal recommendations, the valuable Toolkit that accompanied it, and why conflicts matters so much to both lawyers and clients. Hope you find the program interesting and the report useful, no matter where you practise.

Here come the orderlies

This Law Times article, about changes made in 2006 to Ontario’s Law Society Act that have suddenly galvanized lawyers in the province, makes for an interesting read. Those amendments brought paralegals (non-lawyers providing limited legal services) under the regulatory authority of the law society, which now refers to both lawyers and paralegals as its “licensees” and administers a modified (some say less stringent) form of the barrister’s oath to both sets of legal service providers.

Last week, these changes prompted a motion before the law society’s annual general meeting. It urged that the law society’s bylaws be amended to once again refer to lawyers as “lawyers” and “members” rather than “licensees,” to restore the traditional barrister’s oath and not administer it to paralegals, and to never do something like this again without full-scale consultation with lawyers. Students of Canadian history might appreciate the fact that the motion passed by a vote of 54-40.

I’m not taking a position one way or another on the motion’s merits, because I’m far more interested in the language used by the lawyers to describe their concerns. What’s at play here is more significant than semantics — it’s an illustration of the visceral reactions provoked when members of a group long accustomed to exclusivity and privilege suddenly find those characteristics slipping away.

From the motion: “[I]t is demeaning to lawyers to be treated as a class of licensee.”

From the article: [The lawyer who brought the motion] was disturbed by the “watering down” of access to justice aspects of the barristers’ oath, and that “it’s now a licensees’ oath.” She says other professions would not permit similar changes to their own oaths. “Neither engineers nor doctors would dream of changing the language so that technicians and orderlies and the like could swear the same thing.”

From the article: A lawyer who identified herself as a provincial offences prosecutor said she’s been disturbed by a recent trend of justices of the peace referring to paralegals as “officers of the court” or “friends of the court.” “We are no longer a profession,” she said. “I think it’s a mistake.”

The distinction being drawn here between professionals on the one hand, and “technicians and orderlies and the like” on the other, couldn’t be any clearer. Status matters — a lot — to lawyers, and for some, the normalization of relations with non-lawyer service providers threatens to diminish that status. As non-lawyers continue to pour into lawyers’ traditional marketplace in the years to come, we’re going to see vivid illustrations of the lengths lawyers will go to in order to preserve that status. And we’re going to finally see, forced out into the open, a debate about what it really, actually means to be a lawyer.

A law society bencher, lamenting what she viewed as a failure to communicate to lawyers the effect of paralegals’ integration into the law society, said: “Nobody seems to clearly understand what we are and what we aren’t.” Indeed.

Micro law schools

Two interesting articles by Alex Dimson at Law Is Cool today have me thinking about a possible next step in the evolution of law schools. Two Ontario universities have applied to set up law schools: Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. Alex reports that Lakehead’s application, although on shakier ground with both the Law Society of Upper Canada and other law deans, seems to have political momentum, while Laurier’s isn’t so fortunate. I personally think there should be no new law schools until Ontario fixes its training and licencing regime, but that’s a story for another day.

What interests me more is how the universities are pitching the proposed law schools. Lakehead suggests a class size of just 50 students, while Laurier envisions no more than 75, and each is described as specializing for particular regions and practice areas. According to Law Times, the Lakehead school “would focus on aboriginal law, access to justice in northern and rural communities, decreased access to the profession for students from northern Ontario, and the decline of participation in sole and small firms in the area.” In the LIC story, University President Fred Gilbert added natural resources to the list. Thunder Bay is in small-town Ontario, deep in mining country and close to several aboriginal populations, so the program sounds like it would be very much tailored to the community.

Laurier, meanwhile, is in Canada’s new high-tech heartland of Waterloo, home of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion and other innovative companies. Laurier President Fred Blouw framed the issue this way in another Law Times story: “With respect to the Kitchener-Waterloo area as a hub of intellectual property development around the technology sector, [there is] a tremendous need for specialized legal training, legal knowledge, and a need for more bodies.” The story adds that “the school also draws many students from rural centres, where lawyers often practice in a small firm or sole practitioner setting.”

This makes me wonder if, following the lead of microbreweries and microlenders, we might someday soon see the debut of the micro law school: a boutique institution with intentionally small class sizes that aims to produce graduates specialized for certain types of private-practice careers. Continue Reading

Transforming the practising bar

If you’d like a glimpse of the legal profession of the near-to-mid-future, look to London. Yesterday, the UK’s Bar Standards Board launched a consultation paper concerning the effect on barristers of the new Legal Services Act, which received Royal Assent last October. (The Solicitors Regulation Authority addressed the LSA’s impact earlier.) Here’s LegalWeek and The Lawyer on the announcement.

The BSB’s 50-page consultation document asks for submissions on how the Board should respond to the LSA, specifically regarding Legal Disciplinary Partnerships (different types of lawyers and a minority of non-lawyers practising together) and Alternative Business Structures (firms that offer both legal and non-legal professional services and that could be owned by non-lawyers, from shareholders to supermarkets). LDPs might not seem like a big deal to North American lawyers accustomed to our fused profession, but we should understand that it represents a whole new way of looking at the Bar in England and Wales, and it won’t be an easy road there.

But it’s the ABS regime that has people on this side of the pond talking, because it authorizes not just multi-disciplinary practices, which the Canadian and American bars wrestled with and ultimately rejected over the past decade, but also non-lawyer ownership of legal service provision, which is anathema to the vast majority of lawyers and their regulatory bodies. ABSs aren’t likely to appear in the UK before 2011 — it takes time to set up an entirely new governance structure for an ancient profession — but they will come. And when they do, it’s only a matter of time before they cross the pond.

There’s been a lot written about the future impact of the LSA on North American lawyers — Bruce MacEwen has been on top of this from the beginning — but it seems to me that if any member of the Magic Circle floats shares, merges with an accountancy, or otherwise takes advantage of the ABS options to greatly enhance its capital and strategic reach, then their New York-based competitors are going to want a level playing field on which to compete. And if that kind of regulatory change occurs in one US jurisdiction, dominoes will start falling all over various states and into Canada. In a globalized economy, any country that refuses to allow its lawyers to play by the same business rules as their foreign competitors will relegate those lawyers to a purely local purview. That’s not in anyone’s interests.

This is not happening overnight — probably we’ll see this whole situation play itself out around the middle of the next decade. But it’s not far away, either: by the time today’s first-year law students are into their third year of practice, this will be the reality on the ground. The challenge for law firms is to start thinking now about what kind of business structure makes the most sense for their practices and clients, because their options should expand dramatically in the near future. The challenge for governing bodies is how to prepare themselves and their members for an entirely new way of organizing the practising bar.

Here’s a parting thought from BSB Chair Ruth Evans, announcing the Board’s consultation paper: “We may not see barristers selling their services in the supermarket aisles quite yet, but we can expect changes in the way some organize their affairs and offer their services.” Emphasis added, and how.

Articling abolition? A groundbreaking LSUC report

It arrived quietly and without fanfare. I’ve seen no reports of it in the mainstream media or the legal press. In fact, the young-lawyer-focused law blogs Precedent and Law Is Cool are the only places I’ve seen talk about it so far. But the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Licensing and Accreditation Task Force Interim Report To Convocation, delivered last week in Toronto, is set to completely overhaul the process of admission to the practice of law in Ontario and, eventually, the rest of Canada. If you’re a law student, a lawyer who intends to hire new lawyers someday, or interested at all in the present and future direction of lawyer training in Canada, this report is an absolute must-read.

The main interim report is 44 pages long, followed by an additional 152 pages spread out over 10 appendices. I doubt there’s ever been a more comprehensive report on the bar admission process (nor will any other province likely try to duplicate the task force’s efforts or findings), and I can only imagine what the final report will look like. For what it’s worth, I think the report’s findings are accurate, timely and sorely needed.

I don’t have time here to break down the report in detail — I’ll be writing a more comprehensive commentary that will appear at SLAW in a few days’ time and will be cross-posted here. But this is what you need to know:

1. The Task Force recommends the abolition of the current Skills and Professional Responsibility Program from the bar admission process in Ontario. Of all the reasons the task force gave for this recommendation, perhaps none is more suprising than its assertion that right now, law schools are doing a better job of teaching students skills and professional responsibility than the law society is.

2. The Task Force offers three alternatives to the current articling process by which lawyers ostensibly receive sufficient practical training to enter the practice of law. These are:

(a) make it extremely clear to all current and prospective law students that the law society does not guarantee articling placements, and accordingly cannot guarantee that a law graduate can become a practising lawyer (laissez-faire).

(b) set up or certify a parallel Practical Legal Training Course that provides law graduates who could not obtain articles the chance to earn an equivalent certification in practical legal skills training (Australian model).

(c) Abolish articling outright (the U.S. model).

The Task Force makes no recommendation concerning these three options — it offers pros and cons of each — but it makes quite clear that the status quo is not sustainable, not least because the Ontario bar admission process is facing a tsunami of rising applications over the next few years, culminating in an expected 2009 application class no less than 38.7% larger than in 2001.

The report is groundbreaking, if for no other reason than that it squarely lays out the numerous shortcomings of Ontario’s present bar admission process and demands that the profession act, now, to change. Go read it.

Divided profession, collective governance

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. Continue Reading