President’s View

Karl F. Warner, Q.C.

What should the Law Society do (or not do) to help lawyers compete?

It may be getting harder for a B.C. lawyer today to make a living. Perhaps because of economic downturn, we have noticed fewer Ontario and Alberta lawyers moving here, and some recent B.C. law graduates are looking for greener pastures. We’ve also seen a recent slow-down in the growth of private practitioners and a decline in civil actions in our courts, despite continued growth in the general population.

It would be unwise to draw any conclusions about our client base without more analysis, but I think one thing is certain. We cannot take for granted either the clients we serve or the services we provide. Change is a given.

Do you know what motivates the people you want as your clients? I think people and businesses see legal services as they see commodities, and are more actively shopping for whatever is better, faster and cheaper. This is underscored by a 1998 public survey the Law Society commissioned from Environics Research, which shows concern about cost is a key deterrent to many people seeking the services of a lawyer. One in four respondents in fact failed to seek out legal advice in a situation in which they thought they might have needed it, both because they worried about cost and because they did not necessarily understand the full benefit. Lawyers need to take the time to refocus and see things from the public’s perspective. If people do not value our services, or cannot afford those services, they will not become our clients.

What are you doing to compete? We all have to compete. Apart from the lawyer down the hall, today’s clients might well consider retaining a lawyer from another country or another professional. Or they might use an online advice service, consult an unqualified non-lawyer or go it alone (with or without the latest self-help guide).

Competition means we continually have to reinvent what it means to be a lawyer, the services we offer and how we promote those services to the market. Have you thought about how your practice should change in the coming years?

What can the Law Society do to help you compete? As a Bencher, I believe the Society’s traditional role as a gatekeeper is a valuable one, and we have to be ever vigilant to ensure that lawyers are properly qualified and also that non-lawyer entrepreneurs are not allowed to put the public in jeopardy through dishonesty or incompetence. That is why the Law Society has diligently and effectively tackled the unauthorized practice of law. But I must say that long-term success for the legal profession requires more by way of innovation than regulation. That is a philosophy I hope we share.

From the Benchers’ table to the floor of local bar association meetings, I’ve heard ideas on what the Law Society or the CBA could do to sharpen lawyers’ competitive edge. What do you think? Is there something we can do to help you move into new areas of practice? Can lawyers be repositioned to work more effectively in alternative dispute resolution? Could a collective marketing effort assist? Could lawyers benefit from more information on technology?

On a related point, can the Law Society deregulate to help you compete? This is a weighty question. The Benchers have to find the balance between preserving the core values of the legal profession for public protection … and giving lawyers more free rein to compete. Just within the past six months, we have started moving more liberally and more quickly than I would ever have thought possible. We now lead the rest of the country in facilitating the movement of lawyers from province to province on a temporary basis, and other law societies are following our lead.

The Benchers just recently agreed in principle to allow multidisciplinary practice between lawyers and non-lawyers because we see that the legal profession in Canada is already too far behind accountants and other groups. The public should not be deprived of the benefit of a lawyer’s advice or representation because of our regulation and lawyers should not be put at a disadvantage. Even when we tighten some areas of regulation — most recently our marketing rules — we have made only the changes thought necessary for public protection.* What else should we consider?

The Law Society cannot be progressive without your ideas, as we are acutely aware that we have a responsibility to the profession as well as to the public. The Benchers are always ready to listen.

* For more on the marketing rules and multidisciplinary practice, please see pages 1 and 4.