President's View

Lawyers at the crossroads

Richard S. Margetts, Q.C.

Lawyers now stand at the crossroads of change. Traditionally we have eyed such junctions warily, proceeded with an overabundance of caution and often interpreted any change in direction as a threat rather than an opportunity.

This may be our undoing, especially on those occasions when we are frozen in debate while other professionals confidently march by us into multidisciplinary practice and non-lawyers settle into mediation, arbitration and other fields. We should not be watching, but doing! Let's paint a different picture — one in which lawyers lead, rather than follow, one in which we open up new markets and niche areas of practice.

Economic, social and political growth require us, now more than ever, to re-evaluate the fashion in which we deliver our services. Understanding the nature of change will help us ward off the real threats and maximize the opportunities in the marketplace. And there are opportunities.

Let me say that lawyers will survive — that is not the issue. The challenge for us is to grasp the inevitability of change and use it as a creative force to fulfil our potential. In the face of new competition, we cannot simply "circle the wagons" against intruders to protect our turf.

The forces of change will radically impact on our practice as lawyers. What are some of these forces?

A hunger for alternatives to resolve disputes – Many people are concerned about the complexity, delay and cost of litigation and are ready for alternatives. Is this a threat or an opportunity for lawyers? That depends. Can we use our skills and expand our thinking beyond traditional advocacy? Can we become true leaders, true innovators in alternate forms of dispute resolution as well?

Legal information abounds – Lawyers used to be the sole source of legal information for many people, but technology has changed that. With legal information, and even other lawyers, available at the click of a key, it's easy to become uneasy about losing clients. But it would be better for us to instead embrace technology so we can find new clients, ensure our clients are well informed and improve practice efficiencies. As a lawyer, your fundamental value goes far beyond sharing legal information. You know how to apply legal knowledge to assess and address the unique needs of your clients. This value is a critical part of the "lawyer brand."

The traditional stature of the professional is being eroded – Lawyers cannot necessarily rely on universal public trust, confidence and respect for the professions. Individually and collectively, we must continually earn our reputation and demonstrate our value and the protection we offer clients. The challenge is to maintain professional values while ensuring we deliver our professional services in a fashion that remains relevant to the marketplace.

Paralegals push the envelope – Other professionals and paralegals want to stake out some of the traditional territory of lawyers, a trend clearly seen in Ontario. While in B.C. we have a Legal Profession Act that clearly defines who can and cannot practise law, statutory restrictions are not a complete answer. Are there ways for lawyers to recognize the consumer interest in paralegal services and to influence this development in a way that is positive and protects the public?

Multidisciplinary practice The complexity of society calls for the increasing integration of legal practice and other disciplines. There can be advantages both for professionals and for clients in joining forces in multidisciplinary practice. Can lawyers seize this opportunity, while still protecting the interests of clients? [For more on MDPs as an opportunity, please see the January-February, 2001 Advocate.]

Consumerism challenges the cost of legal services – Underlying all these changes, the consumer is demanding cost-effective legal services. People want affordable professional help. There is a growing acknowledgement that a large segment of the market cannot afford legal services. Our challenge is to offer legal services as innovatively and cost-effectively as possible and to work with the judiciary and the government on improving access to the justice system.

During the course of this year, I expect multidisciplinary practice, alternative dispute resolution and other issues to come to the forefront of Law Society work. Access to justice and the delivery of legal services and our ability to serve the public's needs will occupy us for years to come.

I do not pretend to have the answers on the direction to take at these crossroads. I do know, however, that as lawyers we must make some strategic decisions and be confident in moving forward with an open mind, in a positive and progressive fashion. I have complete confidence in lawyers becoming leaders in any endeavour they choose.