President's View

What's the future of the small firm lawyer?

Ralston S. Alexander , QCRalston S. Alexander , QC

It’s time for one urban myth to die. Despite what you may hear, read or think, the Benchers are not all big-firm lawyers. Most private practice Benchers are in small or smallish firms, and several are sole practitioners. For that reason, we have a stake in the future of small-firm practice.

Just over 50% of BC’s lawyers practise in firms of between one and five lawyers. If you are of that number, take pride. Small-firm lawyers are, and have always been, the backbone of the profession. For most people who need legal help, you are the very face of lawyers in the community.

At the annual Bencher retreat in June this year, thanks to the leadership of First Vice-President Rob McDiarmid, QC, we devoted our time to small-firm practice, its challenges and its future.

When the Benchers first turned to scrutinizing small firms, we weren’t being entirely altruistic (or even self-centred for that matter). We have a responsibility to regulate lawyers and to do what is necessary to help them meet the demands of practice.

In many ways, lawyers in small firms carry more complex responsibilities than lawyers in bigger firms. For one thing, they often assume greater administrative responsibility for their firms. They may also serve a wider variety of clients of varying means and differing expectations and offer those clients a range of services. These include services in family law, an area charged with high emotion and conflict. Law Society complaints, discipline citations and practice standards programs involve a disproportionate percentage of solo or small firm lawyers, and family law practice is certainly a contributing factor.

Let me pause to say that the great majority of small-firm lawyers excel in their practices and cause the Law Society no greater concern than any other segment of the bar. I don’t want to be accused of using statistics like a drunk uses lampposts — for support and not for illumination. In fact, our number-crunching shows a bare 1% of BC lawyers aren’t coping at all well in practice and hence become frequent flyers at the Law Society. Some of those may well have defaulted into marginalized solo or small practices for which they were ill-prepared, possibly because they had no other options. This is a problem, and one the Benchers take seriously.

It’s a far different story for the great majority of small-firm lawyers. They have chosen small-firm practice and find it both rewarding and fulfilling. These lawyers are passionate about their work. Even so, some see the Law Society as making their lives harder by ignoring their needs.

At several of the county bar meetings I have attended so far this year, lawyers have requested that the Law Society direct some additional resources to assist small-firm practitioners. There is universal praise for our staff members who are providing practice advice. Felicia Folk, Jack Olsen and Dave Bilinsky are widely acclaimed and universally loved by the membership. However, they are apparently spread too thin, and some lawyers have experienced (uncomfortable) delays looking for assistance.

I think it safe to say, following our weekend retreat, that the Benchers agree that some significant additional assistance ought to be provided to small-firm lawyers. We reflected on some specific problems they face:

  • trouble accessing continuing education;
  • trouble “specializing” and instead feeling the need to accept all work that comes in the door;
  • difficulty with vacation planning and with file coverage in emergency situations;
  • trouble attracting associates;
  • difficulty planning for an orderly retirement because of the nature of their practice;
  • facing an unstated prejudice against members of small firms, where the size of the firm is perceived to be indicative of a diminished quality of work;
  • problems of loneliness and isolation and, sometimes, a tendency to become reclusive. This tendency is manifested in a reluctance to reach out to colleagues for help.

Thanks to work in other Canadian jurisdictions (Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan), I offer some preliminary thoughts on helping BC lawyers in small firms. I say these are preliminary thoughts because we still have much to learn about this important segment of the bar and I want to encourage your feedback.

First, I think we need to establish a committee that will devote its entire attention to small firms. The committee would benefit from the leadership of Benchers in small firms and, like all Law Society committees, would be assisted in its work by the addition of several non-Bencher members, also from small firms. Without question, we would need your input.

Through the committee we should explore ways to enhance the work that is done by our practice advisors. It may be that some additional staff will be required — we should find out if that is the case. We should also explore methods for providing those advisors with better support, both in terms of staff and technology. We may not be maximizing their ability to assist lawyers in need.

We need to devote more time to developing resources on the Law Society website specifically directed to small firms, including precedents, hardware and software information, a mentoring network and locum resources. This is an efficient medium for distributing targeted information to those who will seek to access it.

Another need is a series of continuing education courses directed to the particular nature of the practice of law from a small firm. These courses would be less about the nuances of the law and more about methods for the effective delivery of legal services in a profitable yet cost-effective manner. Office systems, bookkeeping approaches, staffing strategies and the like are some possible areas of attention. One suggestion is that all lawyers establishing new practices be required to attend and pass a Law Society-sponsored course on trust account rules compliance.

What I really need is to tap into the profession to see what is on your mind on this issue. Let this column serve as a first step.

Can you tell me what’s right and what’s wrong in small firm practice today? How can the Law Society best help you to succeed in your practice? Let me hear from you. I am at