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How a non-lawyer can help grow your law firm

Five years ago, when deliberating whether to start my own firm, I asked myself some predictable questions. They ranged from “what service model would be most readily embraced by clients?” to “what practice management software would best suit my needs?”

pile of sticky notes

One question made me pause: “What is it that I don’t know to make this a success?” Though I had great legal experience, I had to come to terms with the fact that I had never run a business. Could I learn all that goes into it? Probably. Could I speed up the learning curve by bringing in a trusted person with those skills? Definitely.

But that’s not so easy to do. As it turns out, talented business people are not lining up to join a business as second-class citizens. They would rather choose to invest their time and capital in a venture where they can participate fairly in profit-sharing, decision-making and pride of ownership. 

So I recruited my spouse, the only man I knew who was prepared to take a leap of faith few reasonable businesspeople would.  We became de facto an ABS.

That’s right. A “non-lawyer” has been helping me manage a successfully growing law firm.  Has the sky fallen? Have I compromised the professional independence of our lawyers or lessened our professional standards? The answer is no. 

The reason is simple. Everyone in our firm cares about the business, and, needless to say, that includes our non-lawyer.  He understands, as the rest of the lawyers do, that compromising our professional obligations would end our business. Without quality and integrity, we can’t exist.

I’ll go a step further. Without our non-lawyer, we would not have grown the way we have or challenged ourselves to be different, bold and innovative. Our non-lawyer is the voice of our customers (who are also non-lawyers). He constantly, yet respectfully, challenges us lawyers to revisit the ways we communicate and deliver our services, with no preconceived ideas built over years spent learning to be a lawyer. Creativity and innovation often come with a fresh perspective. Going further still, I question whether a time may come that we may need another non-lawyer to support our growth, though short of me committing an act of polygamy, that person could never aspire to be more than an employee...

Putting my situation aside for a moment, I believe we have a duty, as a self-regulated profession, to consider whether the only way to protect our professional integrity is to restrict ownership or control in law firms. 

Should we not first evaluate: (i) what the other options are; and (ii) the cost of each option weighed against the ultimate goal – finding the best way to serve and protect the public.

There are a multitude of options that already exist in other professions (check engineers in Alberta for one example of a creative solution) and jurisdictions. Have we really properly explored all options for regulatory reform? Framing the question as to whether to allow ABS is unduly limiting the debate.

Under the current rules, competition is limited within a single professional group and restricts collaboration with other professionals, which foster groupthink and in turn stunts innovation. None of it is in the interest of the public and the profession. 

What about the other options? Plenty has been said about the risks of ABS. I cannot speak for the public generally, but I can say with pride that our quasi-ABS experience has been nothing but positive. You can ask any of our lawyers or clients. 

When our country is facing an access to justice crisis and the legal industry is facing the biggest disruption it has ever seen, can we afford not to look further? Would the public not benefit from greater competition, collaboration and innovation? At the CBA Legal Conference in Calgary this summer, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin called upon the profession to “innovate or die,” urging us to do something before the public finds other ways (Dr. Google anyone?) to satisfy its needs. Is that cost more acceptable?

For the sake of our profession, let’s ensure we craft a solution for the true protection of the public and not out of fear or protectionism.