How legal practice can respond to technological opportunities and economic realities.
In August, 2015 Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, opened the annual gathering of the Canadian Bar Association by calling on the profession to become more accessible and efficient without compromising professional standards.
“In the age of the Internet, people are questioning why they, the consumers of legal product, should be forced to go to expensive lawyers working in expensive office buildings located in expensive urban centres.”
It was not the first time Justice McLachlin spoke provocatively about the need for change in the profession. In 2011, she called for lawyers to make legal services accessible to all, not just the wealthy.
This past year she also called on the profession to embrace new technology, artificial intelligence in particular. (Lawyers’ intelligence is already pretty artificial, as clients frustrated by legalese certainly know:)
At Social Enterprise Advocates, we are facing these challenges in some practical and unexpected ways.
The Virtual Office
We joined the Centre for Social Innovation community in Toronto in the fall of 2014 in part to address accessibilty. By paring infrastructure to a minimum, thanks to shared amenities, we kept fees below the national average – with further discounts for CSI community members and friends – while serving a community of people whose work we support and encourage at every level.
Our presence is now largely “virtual.” We do not maintain a regular office but rely instead on a combination of shared “hot” desks, borrowed offices and meeting rooms that can be booked. We use a cellphone rather than landline. We share office supplies, and faxng and copying costs. Volunteers (DECAs) provide reception services and sort mail. Two listservs are essential tools in engaging the community both socially and professionally.
In 2015, we focussed on serving the CSI communities in the areas of start-ups, estates and wills, and non-profits. This arrangement worked very well; by mid-year however, our outlook expanded beyond the bounds of the social innovator context.
We had been developing ties outside of Toronto that held promise, and over the summer of 2015, we took our law practice on the road, logging some 14,000 kms in travel to and from Toronto and Northwestern Ontario. By September, an opportunity came up to associate with a small law fim, Beamish & Associates, located in Sioux Lookout. The firm serves a very wide catchment area that includes over twenty First Nations communities, as well as the towns of Kenora, Dryden, Red Lake, Ear Falls and Pickle Lake. This is in the district of Kenora, which is the largest, yet least populated electoral district in Canada.
This development is changing the nature of our practice is some important ways. In Northwestern Ontaro, we now do family law and civil litigation in response to the need for this type of service. In Toronto, we continue to focus on “startup law” and wills & estates.
In Northwestern Ontario we are also working more with First Nations people, who make up about 35% of the population. In Toronto, an opportunity arose to participate in a sensitivity-training workshop offered by Bear Standing Tall, with whom I share office space at the Regent Park CSI. That helped me gain confidence in working with First Nations people, while also tieing my northern experience back to my urban law practice.
A year ago, I would not have imagined that it might be possible to stretch a law practice to reach over 1500 kms.
I am hoping that the CSI community will embrace this new reality and continue to use our services.
Our Toronto clients support a more equitable distribution of services insofar as we are working for more diverse and dispersed communities. We also provide services across a broader economic spectrum than many law firms, from aspiring entrepreneurs in Sault Ste. Marie to people on fixed incomes living in downtown Toronto. This is not merely “pro bono” work, it is an integral part of what we do, providing quality services based on need not means.
The noun “avocat” is, en français, the word for lawyer. In English the meaning of “advocate” has been broadened to something more general and active like “standing up for.” In all our work, we “stand up for” our clients in many ways, but we also believe in “standing for” certain things – advocating values and ways of doing things.
Our approach to legal practice values accessibility and client relations. We are open and transparent about what the law can and cannot do for you. We will discuss how the law works and why, so that you are as well informed as possible. Our northern experience is helping us learn new ways to talk about and explain the law.
Lawyers today have an awesome array of tools that promote better quality work, greater efficientcy and effectiveness. Text messaging, email, Skype, all make it possible to work “without borders” but also with a degree of responsiveness that is unprecedented. In the north, tools like video conferencing have become essential in the delivery of medicical and legal services. Necessity is promoting innovation. Which perhaps, leaves us with this maxim, a thought for the New Year:
Innovation does not always lead from the centre, but from where the need is greatest, which may well be on the periphery or margin.