President’s View

Better, faster, cheaper . . . because it’s what clients want

Karl F. Warner, Q.C.

When you look at your practice, do you think about how to do things better, faster and cheaper? Faster and cheaper are relatively easy concepts for us all to grasp. But try defining better in this context. As lawyers, we tend to think about "better" as relating to the legal quality or thoroughness of our work (which can actually take longer and cost more!) For some clients, just getting the service faster and cheaper often is better, or perhaps they want something different than what we assume. In the end, it’s their view that counts since none of us can take clients for granted. 

Competition from other lawyers and other professionals is increasingly intense. Every neighbourhood bookstore offers an array of legal books and software, forms and precedents for the do-it-yourselfer. With the Internet, this competition has moved to a new plane because both legal information and legal service providers are at hand with the click of a mouse. Simply put, our clients have more choice.

So where does a B.C. lawyer fit in the picture one, five and 10 years from now?

A passage from a 1999 issue of the ABA journal Law Practice Management offers insight into the future: "What will lawyers be paid for? For their wisdom, experience, care, strategic and tactical skill. We must become owls not falcons and, yes, successful lawyers will become competent entrepreneurs, capable of running a business, managing multi-disciplinary projects and developing new work."

Just as clients have choice in legal service providers, they have choice in the type of service they want. Traditional methods of dispute resolution, for example, are losing ground to more novel approaches: mediation and arbitration, restorative justice and diversion. A lawyer’s place can easily be eroded if we are unwilling to accommodate and participate fully.

From a client’s perspective, our traditional menu of services — however sensible to us — may not be ideal. We need to listen to our clients and be flexible in the services, prices and delivery we offer. I firmly believe lawyers have real value in preventing and solving legal problems. Our skills can’t just be picked up at a bookstore — traditional or electronic.

But to stay competitive, we have to question everything we do and every step we take in doing it. One of the things that sets a profession apart from the marketplace is its ethical values, but not all values may be core values. If, for example, a client wished to forego some of the protections of our conflict-of-interest rules to resolve a dispute more quickly and cheaply, can or ought we to allow for that? Who has ownership over this value?

The Law Society has a role to play here. It’s hardly fair to expect lawyers to do things better, faster and cheaper, unless the Law Society assists in making this possible. Regulation should not be an impediment to competition or to expanding a legal practice into new areas. For my fellow Benchers and me, the question should be: How do we regulate in the least intrusive way possible and allow lawyers the flexibility to compete, not only with other lawyers, but with all those who seek to provide client services intraprovincially, interprovincially and internationally? More bluntly put, when should we as a Law Society lead, when should we follow and when should we get out of your way?

This becomes clearer in the context of allowing lawyers into multi-disciplinary practice — an issue all law societies are debating within the Federation of Law Societies.* While there are clearly issues to be resolved on financing and ownership of multi-disciplinary practices, these are not insurmountable — and lawyers should not be cut off from what may be a very important innovation from the public’s perspective.

Lawyer marketing and advertising is another issue I expect to see back at the Benchers’ table this year — what rules need to be in place to reflect our core values as a profession? Could some be dispensed with so as not to shackle lawyers in the face of competition?

If you have ideas on what would help you be more competitive, drop me a line at the Law Society office (see page 2) or at kwarner@sfu.ca.

* For more on the status of multi-disciplinary practice, see reports by the Federation of Law Societies (www.flsc.ca), Canadian Bar Association (www.cba.org/MDP/Striking ABalance.asp) and American Bar Association (www.abanet.org/cpr/multicom.html).