Building for the future: Law Society initiatives in 2006 and beyond
Robert W. McDiarmid, QC
I want to take my first column as President to introduce our plans at the Law Society to build for the future. This is a key theme for 2006, and there is a reason.
We want to build initiatives that ensure the Law Society’s regulatory and governance programs represent the best practices among self-regulating professions, both in Canada and abroad. By doing so now, we can secure a future in which the public continues to be served by a legal profession that is demonstrably independent, competent and honourable.
In 2006, I’d like to address three major initiatives that underlie our plans for building the future.
Helping small firms and sole practitioners
The first initiative is to provide greater assistance to small firms and sole practitioners.
More than half of the lawyers in this province practise in firms of five lawyers or fewer and more than half of the law firms in BC consist of one or two lawyers.
Small firm lawyers are the backbone of our profession — they provide competent advice at a reasonable price to the vast majority of British Columbians who need a lawyer’s services. But, ironically, small firm lawyers often carry more complex responsibilities than lawyers in larger firms. For example, small firm lawyers often assume greater administrative responsibility and serve a wider variety of clients.
Last year, I asked the Benchers to devote a weekend retreat to the challenges faced by small-firm practitioners. After discussing and debating the issues, we agreed that the Law Society should do more to assist sole practitioners and small-firm lawyers. At the same time, the Lawyer Education Task Force was working on a proposal for a post-call education program for lawyers who wish to open a new practice.
As a result, the Benchers, at their November meeting last year, approved the development and implementation of the New Firm Practice Course, which will be offered online and involve self-assessment components. It will be available to all lawyers, and will be mandatory for those who, in future, move into a solo or small firm practice.
The purpose of this program is to provide support to sole practitioners and small firms to better enable them to meet the challenges of practice. The course won’t be introduced until 2007, but during 2006 we will be consulting with the profession to ensure the program best delivers what lawyers want.
At present we are thinking that it should have two mandatory components. The first is “Setting up and operating a law practice.” This would include such topics as trust accounting, law firm technology and file retention. The second would be “Avoiding pitfalls” and would deal with conflicts, client management and reminder systems. Optional modules might include business planning, time management and practice management.
The New Firm Practice Course will be available online, free of charge and should take no more than eight hours to complete. There will be a self-testing component, but no final exam. Lawyers will have six months in which to complete the course, and current lawyers will be “grandfathered.” There is the possibility down the road that the course might be offered live following PLTC sessions to accommodate out-of-town students who are in Vancouver or Victoria for PLTC.
We are also working with the BC Courthouse Library Society and the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) to provide greater online access to legal materials. This will help level the playing field between rural lawyers who do not have easy access to a courthouse library and city lawyers who are often only a few steps away from the nearest library.
The second initiative is to ensure that the Law Society has a strong consultative relationship with the provincial government and, through the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, with the federal government.
The Law Society and Attorney General Wally Oppal — and I should add the Canadian Bar Association — share a common goal of improving public confidence in the justice system. This creates a natural opportunity for the Law Society and the provincial government to work towards the same end.
As President of the Law Society, I look forward to working with the Attorney General and the provincial government to ensure greater public respect for and confidence in the justice system.
Another major initiative is our new trust assurance program.
This program will bring a fresh, superior approach to the fulfilment of our fiduciary duties in the management of trust funds.
The trust assurance program will benefit the profession by providing education and assistance to lawyers. For example, we plan to document the most common trust accounting problems and to suggest solutions. This will ensure that lawyers are properly informed of and compliant with the Law Society’s accounting rules.
The program will also offer increased protection to the public because it will allow the Law Society to detect accounting irregularities earlier and will help us to cut the severity and number of defalcation claims. In other words — no more Wiricks.
The new trust assurance initiative will be fully funded through the Trust Administration Fee. We are also hoping to eliminate the need for an external accountant’s report for 95% of all law firms by January 1, 2007. Instead, lawyers will be required to file a self-report on their annual trust activities.
I have no doubt that the new trust assurance program will have beneficial results for both the public and the legal profession. Details of the program are set out in this Bulletin, beginning at page 4.
Of course, these are not the only things the Law Society will be doing this year. We’ll still be dealing with credentials applications, we’ll still be investigating complaints and — yes — we’ll still be collecting your fees.
But behind all of it is our commitment to a strong, ethical, committed and independent legal profession for the people of British Columbia.
I’d also like to add a personal initiative for 2006. I am a firm believer that one of the most important attributes of our practice as lawyers is professional collegiality. Without collegiality, without personal trust and respect, I think it is difficult to call ourselves professionals.
With that in mind, it is my personal goal to attend at least one meeting of each local bar association meeting in BC. If I can do that, and if my visits add to our professions’s collegiality, I think I will have succeeded in my term as President.