The client-driven revolution

By Kim Covert July - August 2013

As the CBA Legal Futures Initiative builds momentum, lawyers talk about the future of law and responding through innovation.

The client-driven revolution

Compilation: vithib / Istockphoto

A client without a lawyer is a fool, the old saying goes. But what’s a lawyer without a client?

Only 15 per cent of respondents would ask a lawyer to help them resolve a legal problem, according to a survey by the Law Society of British Columbia.

“Historically, lawyers have had a monopoly on the delivery of legal services in Canada,” says Bruce LeRose, Q.C., a former law society president and a managing partner at Thompson, LeRose and Brown in Trail, B.C. “But … we’ve done surveys out here and the information that we have is that lawyers are now only delivering about 15 per cent of all legal services to the public.”

The other 85 per cent is being delivered by paralegals; by the internet; or by other professionals. People even consult their neighbours — anybody but law­yers, who are seen as taking too long and costing too much, says LeRose.

“At the end of the day, we have to operate not only as regulators but also as a profession — [so] how can we best serve the public interest? There’s no doubt in our mind that having some type of professional or quasi-professional advice is better than nothing,” says LeRose.

"The changes that might take place to meet clients’ needs better might also coincidentally create a better working environment for lawyers." Karen Dyck Manitoba

“And that means bringing in people other than lawyers: qualified, trained, licensed, credentialled people other than lawyers.”

The growing number of people other than lawyers offering legal work is seen in discourse on the future of the legal profession as one of several key factors driving change, along with globalization, the weak economy and rapidly evolving technology.

But underneath all of those factors is the client — corporate, private or institutional. If lawyers are finding themselves under pressure to change, it’s because the client is bringing that pressure to bear.

Karen Dyck, a Manitoba lawyer, says nobody’s winning in the current arrangement. Clients are being pushed away by price and process, which is deepening an already existing access to justice crisis; and the stress of serving the almighty billable hour is turning lawyers away from their chosen profession.

Aimée Craft

Photo of Aimée Craft, Public Interest Law Centre (Winnipeg) by Robert Tinker

Dyck, who has a blog on, wants to change the perspective — to shift the focus away from profit to the client. “The changes that might take place to meet clients’ needs better might also coincidentally create a better working environment for lawyers.”

What do clients want and need, then?

According to a study commissioned by the CBA’s Legal Futures Initiative, to look into what’s driving changes in the legal marketplace, clients want value for their money. They want their lawyers to speak to them in ways they can understand, and they want an honest assessment of their chances. They also want transparency in billing — and to have work done at the lowest possible price.

"Some practitioners are already responding with new business models."

That means they’re less willing than before to shoulder the costs of training new lawyers, and far more willing to accept ideas such as offshoring — and near-shoring; or having lower-paid paralegal or non-legal professionals do the work — as long as they keep the prices low.

Aimée Craft is a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Centre in Winnipeg where she specializes in aboriginal law.

“As aboriginal law practitioners we … have to have an understanding of the underlying politics and social issues to be able to advise our clients,” says Craft. “And that doesn’t sit very well with traditional fee structure in a law firm where you bill X amount of time for Y type of service.”

A lawyer specializing in aboriginal law has to know how to work within — and even how to lead — an interdisciplinary team, while also acknowledging the business and political implications of the client’s action. A land claim, for example, could draw in accountants, geologists, archeologists, social scientists and historians.

“More integration [with other professionals] is probably the way of the future,” she says.

Matthew Fraser

Photo of Matthew Fraser, Hood & Fraser (Yarmouth, N.S.) by Adam Graham

Some practitioners are already responding with new business models.

After working in New York, Australia, and at Davies LLP for five years, Kevin West decided to base his practice on the model of hiring the people you need when you need them. Two-and-a-half years ago, he started SkyLaw LLP in Toronto. Based on project-management principles, it offers clients all the features of a big firm with flexible fee and staffing arrangements.

“I saw a lot of clients that I wanted to be able to work with because I had the connections and liked the work that they were doing, but it was very hard to bring them in as Davies clients just based on the fee structure and the type of work we had to do,” he says. “Companies that need the big-firm, sophisticated advice … sometimes get overlooked or just can’t afford to be at the bigger firms.”

Pascale Pageau took advantage of a maternity leave from a big firm to interview her clients about what they wanted, and based her Montreal firm, Delegatus, on what they told her.

“For instance, they were willing to pay for a high level of expertise but they were complaining so much when it comes down to commodzed work,” says Pageau. “So we tried to rethink the way we were serving. It’s okay maybe to not [bill] per hour, maybe we should [bill] by the value of the services.”

"Practitioners like West are leveraging technology and globalization to make their new business model work..."

Practitioners like West are leveraging technology and globalization to make their new business model work: SkyLaw relies on cloud computing to keep costs down and sources legal advice across borders, while technology puts small firms like LeRose’s in Trail on the map for international clients.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Trail, which is a small town of 10,000, or whether you’re in Toronto, which is four-and-a-half million people, you have the same access to those types of clients,” says LeRose. “Technology’s been a great leveller for practitioners.”

The literature and discussion around the topic of the future of legal practice tends to be split into those who see the coming changes as a threat, and those like LeRose, who see them as an opportunity. Dyck points out that a third group also exists — those for whom the topic isn’t even a blip on the radar.

“I don’t think they have time to even lift their heads and look up at what’s going on around them. They’re not even noticing that the discussion is taking place, perhaps,” she says.

Ivan Merrow

Photo of Ivan Merrow, J.D./MBA candidate, Queen’s University by Mike Pinder

Matthew Fraser, a young lawyer in Yarmouth, N.S., is one of those lawyers Dyck would like to see become more engaged. He denies that he’s too busy to worry about the future of the profession, but he admits “sometimes maybe I don’t turn my mind to it enough.” Called to the bar in Nova Scotia in 2007, Fraser, a partner at Hood & Fraser in the small town of Yarmouth, N.S., took over the firm four years after joining as an associate to Clifford Hood, who wanted to wind down his solo practice. Now Fraser’s bringing on his own associate to shoulder some of the load.

Ivan Merrow, a J.D./MBA candidate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says the topic’s not really on the radar of his fellow students either. Merrow co-founded Law Students for Technology and Innovation, a student organization whose goal is to find a better way to deliver legal services.

“When we started last year I thought LFTI was cutting-edge. Later that fall, a library book jumped out at me from the shelf. It was about changing legal education to meet the needs of the modern client. I was intrigued,” says Merrow, who is critical of the way legal education is delivered. “I laughed when I saw it was published in the 1960s. The idea hasn’t made much progress, but it’s always been out there.”

Merrow failed to garner much interest when he tried to organize a future-of-the-profession conference at Queen’s earlier this year, but that hasn’t prevented him from thinking about how he’d change things. He’d start with the legal curriculum, move on to how law students gain experience, and he says he’d be “thrilled to work with entrepreneurs who want to shake up the legal economy.”

“We need to realistically assess the value we’re providing to clients, and stop doing the work if lower-price providers should be doing it. If a paralegal, legal assistant, computer or software program can provide the same legal service a lawyer can, we should build those resources into our law practice and focus on high-value work,” says Merrow.

“Surgeons shouldn’t sweep the hospital floor and then ask for a doctor’s salary.”

Join the conversation

The first phase of CBA’s Legal Futures Initiative culminated in the June release of the paper The Future of Legal Services in Canada: Trends and Issues. The paper, which synthesizes all of the research and insight gathered to date, launched the second, consultative phase of the project.

Over the next several months the CBA will be asking lawyers, clients, legal and para-legal professionals — anyone with a stake in the future of the profession — to offer up their thoughts on the subject. Teams have been formed to drill down into issues affecting the profession: business structures and innovation; ethics and regulatory issues; and education and training. The teams are expected to report to CBA Council next February at the mid-winter meeting.

You can go to to read the reports, learn about the teams and answer the 20 questions raised by the background research. The association has also staked out a space on Twitter with the #cbafutures hashtag.

Kim Covert is a writer and editor at National.

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