Karl F. Warner, Q.C.
Over the past three years, the Law Society has been looking at the effects that technology and modern communication methods will have on the delivery of legal services. In many ways, the services we deliver are no different from other information, advisory or economic services. In a recent Vancouver Sun article, "The Net's Profound Effect on World's Economy," David Bond, an economist for HSBC Bank, made some general observations that we as lawyers ought to keep in mind. He states that modern devices and processes have ". . . made acquiring information much less costly . . . [and] made it possible to assemble quickly a great deal of information . . . [that] is up to date . . . . The Internet has reduced transaction costs . . . and makes entry [into the service delivery system] exceedingly easy . . . . What all of this means is that, with transaction costs declining and entry becoming easier, the economy as a whole is moving closer to an optimum competitive structure."
I have said it before, but it bears repeating. Our clients increasingly expect better, cheaper and faster services. The delivery of legal information — historically a large part of our service as lawyers — is more readily available to the public and we are challenged to demonstrate the value we add to that information. Historical assumptions of how we provide our services or how the quality of those services can be controlled are also changing. New technologies and communication systems test the relevance of provincial or national regulatory boundaries, and disparate tax policies between jurisdictions add competitive impediments. Geographic proximity is no longer a necessary consideration for clients who can now traverse electronically a vast network of service providers without restriction when seeking advice.
The Law Society of British Columbia's approach to the new millennium has been to attempt to identify the issues, however uncertain, that may be critical to our future as a profession, and then to marshal our collective attention and planning toward them.
Working in concert with other law societies, our Law Society is now well placed to deliver resources to lawyers in a better, faster and cheaper way. On-line research tools and libraries — as well as reliable, confidential and authenticated electronic delivery of documents — are all within our grasp. We can be proud of that work. Too, we have started the discussions necessary to explore how lawyers can better use their human resources and will revisit how lawyers can better market themselves in the new environment. Last, with our various partners, we are working on improvements to legal education to prepare lawyers to work in the midst of this information revolution.
It must be remembered that greatest change occurs at the front line, where the pressures are most extreme. That front line is where you and I practise — where legal services are delivered. While our Law Society must properly anticipate change and design its expectations of lawyers in light of those changes, it is the individual lawyer on the front line who must adapt to the new conditions. The excellent research of Harvard University economics professor, Michael Porter, and his co-author, Roger Martin Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, urges that:
The central prescription . . . for firms is to seek out the pressure, rather than flee from it, and to seek advantage through unique processes and products . . . . . . . if the greatest pressure for upgrading does not come from the home market, firms should seek activity to participate in the most sophisticated markets worldwide. This especially requires firms [large and small] to invest in research and development, branding, understanding customers, and develop unique configurations of assets and sophisticated distribution strategies.
The central prescription . . . for firms is to seek out the pressure, rather than flee from it, and to seek advantage through unique processes and products . . . .
. . . if the greatest pressure for upgrading does not come from the home market, firms should seek activity to participate in the most sophisticated markets worldwide. This especially requires firms [large and small] to invest in research and development, branding, understanding customers, and develop unique configurations of assets and sophisticated distribution strategies.
This admonition was directed to business generally, but it applies with full force to lawyers. While the Law Society creates policy to enhance our ability to compete, it will be up to each of us individually to do so. The Law Society cannot market for us. Neither can the Law Society harness all the new technologies for us or make choices on novel or niche areas of practice. We must do these things ourselves.
That said, as lawyers we can expect the Law Society to act as a partner and help in developing strategies for change, opening up new vistas, enlarging practice horizons and helping us add value to our work. Most importantly, the Law Society must strive to ensure that our governance structure and rules do not create impediments, or shackle our efforts to compete. Our rules should fulfil, and never overreach, a legitimate regulatory purpose.
What each of us must realize is that we cannot just hope to meet change. We must work toward it, and this need for thoughtful response will thrust extra responsibility on the Law Society to use its people and resources in new ways, while still focusing on traditional responsibilities. This is a long-term undertaking that will only be successful if you, as the other partner, willingly give the Society the necessary resources to do the job. That commitment is demonstrated in many ways, including lawyers supporting a fair practice fee that gives the Benchers sufficient scope to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
To be truly successful in this time of rapid change, we will all be required to look less in the rear-view mirror and focus a good deal more on the changing view in the front windshield to anticipate what is ahead,to focus less on that which has been accomplished and more on what needs to be done. I, for one, welcome the future and face it with confidence knowing that the Law Society, its Benchers and staff, and you and I as members, are up to the task.