The upside of chaos
It finally happened. Some of us in the Canadian legal profession had predicted the collapse of a major law firm. It’s not something we wanted to see, but, based on the restructuring in the international legal markets, many of us considered it to be inevitable.
In 2012, Dewey & LeBoeuf, an international U.S. law firm which employed more than 2,500 people, filed for bankruptcy. But when Heenan Blaikie announced in February that it would close its doors forever, many people, including those working at the firm, were taken by surprise. If anything positive has emerged, it’s that now there is considerably more introspection about the future of legal services in Canada.
What puzzled so many lawyers is that Heenan Blaikie appeared to be profitable right up until the end. What appears to have led to its demise is the fact that the firm was structured as a partnership — and when a few key partners start to leave, the entire deck of cards collapses. Other large Canadian law firms are already quietly slimming down without broadcasting their moves to avoid setting off alarms. Greater stability, it seems, comes from business structures rather than what has been the standard form of legal service delivery for generations.
Fortunately, some jurisdictions are already examining alternative business structures. For example, in January 2012, Russell Jones & Walker, a 425-person UK firm with 10 locations, was taken over by Australia’s Slater & Gordon and converted into an ABS. The Law Society of Upper Canada has indicated that jurisdictions which promote these reforms will inevitably enhance access to justice. Reform may also allow lawyers to focus on applying the law while others such as business managers and other professionals focus on business operations. Law students do not learn how to operate a business in law school, and there is no evidence they are able to learn it in practice aside from trial and error.
Law students should be particularly interested in the future. Articling students and junior associates are usually the last to know about major business decisions. They’re also the ones with the most to lose, because they have fewer career options and opportunities for lateral transfers. This means that law students of the future have to start planning their careers today.
The Canadian Bar Association is helping to provide insight into what lies ahead. The CBA Legal Futures Initiative is identifying key drivers in the transformation of legal services, and technology and innovation are in the forefront (Find out more at cbafutures. org). Digital literacy will play a crucial role in facilitating the commoditization of law and the growth of electronic filing in courts and electronic dispute resolution. Technology will also give rise to virtual lawyers, whose only understanding of “face time” is a smartphone app which allows for videoconferencing.
Practitioners may be uncomfortable with change, but change is inevitable and should be embraced. New technologies and innovation were catalysts for the Industrial Revolution which transformed our society. Workers and industries had to abandon traditional ways and adapt to new methods. Similarly, lawyers will inevitably shift from the traditional structure of law firms to alternative business structures.
The potential upside for the lawyer of the future is greater job satisfaction. They can focus on what they know and love — the law — and not worry about number-crunching and business headaches. The value of legal services is in the final product, not in the amount of time poured into a file. The future lawyer’s market worth will relate more to their technical legal skills rather than the circles in which they were raised or whether they fit a stereotypical image of a successful lawyer.
Ideally, the future practice of law should allow for family care, both of children and parents, and for a healthy range of hobbies, interests, and recreational activities. Instead of being chained to their firm, lawyers would use technology to work when and where they want.
The future is the possibility of true freedom to pursue your life passions while still being well compensated for your work. It’s a future we should all embrace and work toward creating in our lifetimes.