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Cost disease, the practice of law and access to justice

(First published on slaw.ca)

How is it that we are such a wealthy society yet services that were once available are no longer available (at least at affordable prices)? Many people, but certainly not all, had help in their homes and farms, even full-time help. Doctors used to make house calls. When I was a child, the milkman[1] made deliveries each day. There used to be people who actually answered telephones in businesses.

What we call the “access to justice” problem seems to be similar in nature. We know that the number of self-represented litigants has dramatically increased over the last four decades. Ordinary people can’t afford lawyers. Even lawyers can’t afford lawyers. Yet, it seems that there was a time that people had a family lawyer just like they had a family doctor.

Some of this is pastoral myth. The idea that doctors were once available to all isn’t true as Tommy Douglas addressed in Saskatchewan in the 1950s. The poor didn’t have servants even though domestic help seems to have been more common than it is now. The image of the small town lawyer serving the whole town fails to recognize that there were income differences that must have affected who could afford to pay for a lawyer.

And while the price of legal services is a significant issue, it isn’t the only issue in the “access to justice” problem. There is also much to the idea that our legal system has become more and unnecessarily complex with attendant costs. A system of justice that is too expensive for most to access is a denial of access to justice even if the perfect justice can be obtained by those who can afford it.

While the problem of access to justice has more than one cause (and so must be addressed in more than one way), the cost of lawyers seems increasingly to be part of the problem. But why is that?

Cost Disease

A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast on economics[2]. There was an interview with Larry Summers[3] who is a highly regarded economist[4]. Stephen Dubner, the interviewer, asked Summers about the cost of government and why it is that the cost of government doesn’t shrink. As Dubner asked:

You talk about us having conquered inflation, but lately you’ve been writing about the reasons why federal government can’t shrink. One of those reasons that I found really interesting — you talked about how changes in structural pricing that disproportionately affect government are huge. You talk about the Consumer Price Index from 1983 versus today and the things that have gotten relatively cheaper and the things that have gotten relatively much more expensive. Can you talk about that for a moment? I assume where that leads to is a conversation about what you economists call cost disease, yes?

Summers responded saying:

This is the phenomenon that was first noticed by the late Princeton economist William Baumol, that’s sometimes referred to Baumol’s Disease or cost disease. It refers to the fact that if workers become much more productive doing some things — and their wage has to be the same in all sectors, then there’s going to be a tendency for the price of the areas in which labor is not becoming productive to rise. That’s why it costs more to go to the theater relative to other things that it did when I was a child. That’s why tuition in colleges has risen. That’s why the cost of mental-health counseling has risen. All kinds of activities where it takes inherently a person one hour to provide a given service and where productivity growth is defeating the point. Productivity growth in education, after all, is a higher ratio of students to teachers — which is exactly the opposite of what we all want for our kids. Those structural changes are going to define our economy.

The cost disease thesis says that relatively unproductive sectors become more costly with productivity increases in other sectors because incomes increase in both productive and unproductive sectors as a result of increased productivity.

A core idea of cost disease is that there is labour mobility over time. In the long run, a sector will not be able to continue to pay people lower incomes if work is available to them elsewhere for higher incomes. Just because one sector is less productive than another sector doesn’t mean the less productive sector will be able to get away with paying its workers lower incomes. The cost disease thesis also reflects the economic view that incomes over time generally rise as productivity generally rises. Of course, there are questions about some of the underpinning of the cost disease thesis.[5]

But even if one does not accept the idea that productivity increases positively affect incomes generally[6], it must be true that sectors that do not become more productive will become relatively more costly unless these relatively unproductive sectors decrease incomes in their sectors.

Cost disease and the practice of law

I was struck by the application of the idea of cost disease to the practice of law. The last four decades have seen amazing productivity increases in other sectors of the economy. Computing capacity and networks have fundamentally changed the productivity of significant sectors of the economy. Before that, mechanization, electrification and industrialization radically changed the productivity of other sectors of the economy.

On the other hand, it also seems pretty clear that lawyer productivity has little changed over the long term. While there have been some productivity changes arising from modern technology, most of that has simply been to reduce overhead as lawyers do their own document processing.

This is particularly true in litigation. The approach to analyzing documentary evidence, interviewing clients and witnesses, discovering adverse parties and trying cases for ordinary people is highly lawyer-intensive without there having been material changes in productivity over the decades[7]. This may be less true in some of the solicitor’s practices where technology has made document production more efficient and where process efficiencies can be adopted in routine aspects of legal work where there is sufficient volume.

Of course, economic theories do not always hold in practice. There can be other factors at work. Market efficiency assumptions may not hold. But actual labour market information seems to show that lawyer incomes have followed incomes generally. A few years ago, I looked at census information over the last forty years or so and found that lawyer incomes generally tracked family incomes over that period. I also understand that research has indicated that lawyer, engineer and doctor incomes track a similar path[8].

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that lawyer incomes do rise and fall with incomes generally for whatever reason. That means that if other sectors have become more productive then the cost of what is produced in those sectors will have declined. Costs in sectors like law where productivity has not improved, or improved as much, will relatively increase.

I was excited by the new (to me) thought that apparent increases in legal costs and resulting diminution in access to justice could be explained in part by increased productivity in other sectors and the limited productivity increases in law. I went looking for further discussion of cost disease and, particularly, its application to the practice of law.

Not surprisingly, I found that this was not a new thought. For those interested in reading more, Professor Gregory W. Bowman posted two blogs on exactly this point over a decade ago in his Law Career Blog[9]. More recently, Emery Lee[10] published a journal article in the University of Miami Law Review entitled “Law Without Lawyers: Access to Civil Justice and the Cost of Legal Services”[11]

In his article, Lee looked at the cost of legal services for the “Big Guy” and the cost for the “Little Guy” i.e. the ordinary person. Lee said at pp. 514 to 515 that “In relation to the Little Guy, the cost disease is his problem. As discussed above, in general, it is not the levels, or amount, of discovery that keep the Little Guy out of court. Most of the Little Guy’s cases are not going to be discovery-heavy, and reforms designed to reduce discovery levels are unlikely to help the Little Guy.” and “The Little Guy has simply been priced out of the market for legal services. Reducing discovery levels is unlikely to solve this problem.”

So what?

As a profession, we have had difficult discussions about innovating our existing business structures. Some argue that we should simply focus on procedural and substantive simplification of the litigation process, that it is only litigation that is a problem and that solicitors’ practices are just fine. Accepting that simplification in litigation is important, my view has long been that the significant areas where people do not use legal services at all (sometimes called the 85%) must be addressed and that the cost of providing services is a major part of the reason for the lack of service in the 85%. Increases in costs arising from increased productivity in other sectors may be part of the reason that the 85% cannot be effectively served without significant productivity changes. This supports the idea that it is important to bring capital and technology to bear because increasingly expensive professional labour is simply too expensive for the task[12].

What is a significant implication for me is that decreased access to justice in the 15% served by lawyers, and particularly in litigation, may be the result of cost disease and the lack of productivity increases in law. Where access to capital is constrained as is true in the practice of law, labour is overwhelmingly the means of production. Where productivity in other sectors improves, the cost of legal work certainly relatively increases. And if labour costs actually rise generally with increased productivity, the absolute cost of legal work will increase as lawyer incomes rise with productivity in other sectors[13].

If “cost disease” is a material reason for the increasing cost of legal services and diminishing access to legal services, it follows that legal costs will continue to relatively increase unless productivity in the legal sector improves. Even without this analytic framework, it is obvious that new ways of providing legal services are already here and that they are less expensive and more easily accessible. This will only increase.

The implication is significant. If the traditional practice of law becomes relatively more and more expensive over time then fewer legal services will be consumed and the threat from new and less expensive forms of legal service will increase. Legal services regulation will not ultimately hold back this tide, nor should it in my view.

So the question is whether we should continue to restrict the practice of law to traditional practices or should we encourage real innovation in the way that law is practiced so that productivities are achieved.

I used to think that the answer was obviously that increased productivity should be encouraged because of the moral and policy obligation to promote access to justice. While still thinking that is so, I also think that existing legal practices are imperilled by our unwillingness to allow the conditions required for innovation. Cost disease is not just a disease suffered by consumers of legal services. Cost disease is suffered by lawyer and paralegal producers too and the consequences may be more severe if not addressed. Attempting to hold back the tide can work for a while but when the dike fails much can be lost that could have been saved.

Something to think about.

_____________________________

[1] Herb was our milkman and he had a very cool truck. He let me ride with him in his truck on our street when I was a little boy

[2] http://freakonomics.com/

[3] http://freakonomics.com/podcast/larry-summers-economist-everyone-hates-love/

[4] Even if not so much on other topics

[5] It is not so clear that the benefits of productivity increases are generally distributed. Labour market mobility is suspect with income disparities having increased over the last generation. Increases in productivity over the last generation have not resulted in increased real incomes for many people. Some increases in income have been enjoyed in distant economies with local labour markets facing downward pressures.

[6] i.e. that the wealthy disproportionately enjoy the profitability arising from increased profitability

[7] Significant e-discovery advances exist but are mostly irrelevant outside of “big business” disputes and mostly address the significant increase in e-documents in business over the last couple of decades. Litigation for ordinary people has not seen material productivity gains other than legal research, especially CanLii.

[8] Alice Woolley kindly reviewed a draft of this column. She advised that this observation was made in the research underlying Woolley, Alice and Farrow, Trevor C. W., “Addressing Access to Justice Through New Legal Service Providers: Opportunities and Challenges” (2015), 3 Texas A & M Law Review 549

[9] http://law-career.blogspot.ca/2006/07/baumols-cost-disease-and-practice-of.html and http://law-career.blogspot.ca/2006/08/baumols-cost-disease-and-lawyers-part.html

[10] Senior Researcher in the US Federal Judicial Centre

[11] Emery G. Lee III, Law Without Lawyers: Access to Civil Justice and the Cost of Legal Services, 69 U. Miami L. Rev. 499 (2015)

[12] If legal services are only relatively more expensive but not absolutely more expensive, it would still follow that consumption of legal services would decline.

[13] Whether because of increased productivity in other sectors or not, lawyer incomes have followed other incomes.

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Conflicted regulation in the public interest

(first published on slaw.ca)

Fiduciary law deals strictly with conflicts of interest. A fiduciary is not permitted to have an interest that conflicts with the duties owed to their beneficiary unless the conflict and all material facts have been disclosed and consent is obtained Sharbern Holding Inc. v. Vancouver Airport Centre Ltd., 2011 SCC 23. Where a fiduciary benefits without consent, the fiduciary is ordinarily required to disgorge the benefit whether or not the beneficiary’s interests have been compromised. Strother v. 3464920 Canada Inc., 2007 SCC 24

The Rules of Professional Conduct are no less strict. It is professional misconduct for a lawyer or paralegal to act where their self-interest conflicts with their duties to their client without proper consent. Some conflicts are not waivable. Transactions with clients are strictly regulated even where the lawyer or paralegal does not act on the transaction[1].

It is ironic that client conflicts are treated so seriously while the inherent conflict in self-regulation is mostly ignored. Commonly, this conflict is not really recognized or understood. Some think that the public interest is virtually invariably the same as the interest of the legal professions. Pressures from stakeholders and the realities of elections affect how elected benchers perceive issues and their roles.

Examples of conflicting self-interest in regulation

There are many examples which illustrate this inherent conflict. Describing a few helps make the point. In June, a proposal was made to Convocation in Ontario to allow charities and not-for-profits to hire lawyers and paralegals to provide legal services to the public. The idea was to attempt to address unmet legal needs by permitting those who currently serve people with other social, health and economic needs to add legal services to their offerings. Unlike the many proposals put to Convocation, this proposal provoked an immediate demand from legal stakeholders for time to consider and address the proposal, no doubt reflecting recent ABS debates. The proposal was deferred.

While I’m quite hopeful that lawyers will see the merits of this “civil society” proposal with fuller information and time to reflect, there is a long history of the private bar reacting defensively to other ways of providing legal services. In his book The Law Society of Upper Canada and Ontario’s Lawyers, 1797-1997, Christopher Moore details the early days of legal clinics in the 1970s. As Moore describes, the intent of these “storefront clinics” reflected the belief that legal assistance had to be delivered to poor communities through community networks and agencies which integrated legal advice with other kinds of assistance offered from accessible storefront ‘clinics.’ In 1971, Osgoode Hall Law School, with support from the Ford Foundation and the Canadian government, opened the Parkdale legal clinic. The following quotation from Moore’s book describes the reaction:

‘We were against this, we were violently opposed to this,’ recalled Gibson Gray, a future treasurer then on the legal aid committee. `They were … taking work on at the clinic … rather than having the work done by lawyers, traditional lawyers.’ That summer, there were rumours that the Law Society might seek an injunction against the law school’s storefront clinic, and benchers urged the professional conduct and unauthorized practice committees to investigate. …

… The Law Society’s irritation moved it to consider reclaiming the name `Osgoode Hall’ from the law school, but clinical legal aid (the phrase which soon replaced ‘poverty law’) proved irresistible. The Law Society, able neither to prevent nor to control their emergence, soon acknowledged that clinics were no real threat to private law practice, for they usually served a different clientele and often did counselling and community organizing work that extended well beyond legal practice. …

The reaction by the private bar to student legal clinics in the 1970s and to new practice structures in the 2010s[2] illustrates that self-interest has material effected consideration of new forms of legal service delivery. This is not to say that legitimate issues were not raised. In the 1970s, the way that student legal aid was brought forward was a challenge to the Law Society’s regulatory authority. Accordingly to Moore, “Arguing that supervising law students working in a storefront legal clinic was part of the law school’s educational mandate, Dean Gerald LeDain took the position that seeking permission from (or even informing) the Law Society was unnecessary”. Similarly, there are reasons to think carefully about allowing new forms of for-profit legal services[3]. But just as it is no answer to a disgorgement claim to say that no harm was suffered, it is no answer to concerns about the integrity of self-regulation to say that protectionism often leads to examination of legitimate issues.

Recent revisions to the advertising and referral fee rules provide another example. Over recent years, the traditional personal injury bar has faced significant new competition for clients. Significant investments were made in brand advertising. Referral fee-based business models capitalized on and fueled the advertising. Traditional ways of attracting clients were disrupted. The reaction of the traditional personal injury bar was to seek regulatory intervention. This is not at all to say that public and consumer interests were not engaged by these changed advertising and referral fee practices. They clearly were. And the traditional personal injury bar was no doubt motivated in part by concerns about the interests of injured people. But the fact is that these issues are, in part, reflective of competitive pressures between different parts of the private bar. The Law Society is currently considering contingent fee arrangements which are commonly acknowledged to require reform. The personal injury bar has a significant self-interest in contingent fee regulation. It is fundamentally important that the Law Society deal with these issues in the public interest and in the interest of injured people recognizing that access to justice, procedural and substantive, is what must drive deliberations about contingent fee arrangements.[4]

The recent Family Legal Services Review report by Justice Annemarie E. Bonkalo raises another cogent example. Lawyers and paralegals have been regulated together by the Law Society since 2007. Lawyer benchers and paralegal benchers are elected by their respective professions. While there are tensions within Convocation, I think that it is generally thought that this regulatory approach has worked well. Common perspectives on and approaches to appropriate professional conduct makes practical sense as does integrated professional conduct investigation and discipline. There are obvious synergies in licensing and ongoing professional competence. However, lawyers and paralegals compete for clients in some areas of practice. The extent of the permitted paralegal scope of practice engages the self-interest of both paralegals and lawyers.

These self-interests are obviously engaged by the Bonkalo Report. Lawyer benchers have been the target of organized communications from the family law bar, all framed in the public interest. Lawyer stakeholder groups are making forceful submissions against expansion of the paralegal scope of practice. I would be surprised if paralegal benchers are not receiving similar communications from paralegals. Paralegal stakeholder groups are naturally advocating for expanded scope of practice. To be clear, most benchers seek to rise above self-interest and to genuinely address the public interest in effective and fair resolution of family breakups. But my observation is that it is hard both for paralegals and lawyers to do this without their judgments being affected by self-interest. This is not surprising. Fiduciary law and professional conduct rules exist because we understand human nature and the cognitive biases that of us have.

These are but three examples of conflicting self-interest in self-regulation. Other examples are not difficult to find.

The need to act in the public interest and to reform governance

The point of this column is two-fold. The first is that each of these examples is live. It is important that the Law Society, the legal professions and stakeholder groups recognize how these issues need to be addressed. Just because self-interest is engaged doesn’t mean that legitimate issues are not raised. But professionalism and the integrity of self-regulation requires disciplined focus on the public interest and the interest of those we serve. If we do not regulate ourselves properly, we can expect that someone else will.

The second is that we should think hard whether our approach to governance effectively addresses conflicting self-interest and assures proper self-regulation. In Ontario, a Governance Task Force is currently charged to review of and make recommendations respecting the Law Society of Upper Canada’s governance structure. This question of how to address regulatory self-interest should be addressed by the task force,

A modest regulatory innovation might be to use public benchers as a formal check on self-interest. There are eight public benchers appointed to Convocation in Ontario. In meetings with over fifty voting members, these public members have an important role but a limited voice. Even without increasing the number of appointed members, these “lay” benchers could be formally responsible as a committee to consider and publicly report to Convocation on matters where regulatory self-interest is significantly engaged. Simply requiring that the public interest be addressed by public members should have a salutary effect.

Manitoba provides a recent example of significant governance change[5]. Manitoba has 23 benchers. There are 12 elected benchers, a bare majority. Six lay benchers are independently appointed. Four lawyer benchers are appointed by the other benchers applying criteria required to be established “such as the need for representation by region, demographics, type of law practice, or professional, leadership or management skill”. The Dean of the law school and an articling student are benchers as well.

In 2014, the Canadian Bar Association Futures Report recommended at pp. 50-51 that:

The governing bodies of law societies should be made up of elected lawyers, as well as a significant number of appointed lawyers and non-lawyers. The appointed governors should be selected by an independent appointment process designed to fill gaps in experience, skills and diversity.

There are no doubt other ways that governance reform could usefully address the problems of self-interest in self-regulation. Thoughts and suggestions by way of comment to this column would be helpful.

To every action (and sometimes even to an inaction), there is a reaction

It is easy and lazy to be apocalyptic including about the prospect of losing self-regulation in Canada. There is an ongoing risk of that but, at least for now, no real pressure for change. But failing to properly undertake responsibility in the public interest can result in loss of authority.

In his book, Moore provides an example. The resistance to the legal clinic model by the practising bar and the Law Society in the 1970s was followed by the appointment by the Ontario government of Justice John Osler “to investigate the delivery of legal services to disadvantaged groups, including aboriginal communities and isolated regions. Osler’s report laid the groundwork for a permanent network of Ontario legal clinics”. As Moore further notes “Osler also recommended that legal aid be transferred entirely from the Law Society to a publicly appointed board which might be more open than the lawyers to other innovations in delivery of legal services”.

Moore ends his discussion of this history noting that Law Society leaders subsequently acknowledged “in their way, that the Law Society alone no longer set the agenda on legal aid and much else affecting the profession. The principle of self-government endured, but authority over the legal was becoming permanently subdivided”.

I have previously written that unmet legal needs are a significant challenge to self-regulation.[6] This is not new as Moore describes. Failing to address legal needs not effectively addressed by the private bar resulted in loss of Law Society responsibility in the 1970s. Failing to do the same 40 years later risks similar loss. Given the extent and significance of unmet legal needs in family law, a protectionist response to the Bonkalo Report likely results in loss of authority over who may provide legal services in family law matters. This is not to say that Justice Bonkalo’s recommendations should necessarily be accepted. The point is that the self-interest of lawyers or paralegals is the wrong perspective from which to address the question.

The same can be said about contingent fee arrangements. The personal injury bar is vitally concerned with contingent fee arrangements. Ontario benchers will no doubt want to reflect carefully on what is said by personal injury lawyers in the current consultation. Their expertise and experience requires that benchers listen carefully. But their understandable self-interest requires independent consideration of recommendations for reform in the public interest. Again, failure to do by the Law Society so will likely result in loss of responsibility and authority.

Doing the smart thing and the right thing

It is clear that self-regulation can be lost all at once or bit by bit. For those who consider self-regulation to be essential to independence of the bar, the need for governance mechanisms and policy decisions to ensure that the public interest is advanced should be powerful. The same should be true for those who merely see value in self-regulation[7]. On an issue by issue basis, members of the private bar and their representatives should recognize that protectionist instincts that result in self-interested regulatory decisions can be counter-productive in the longer run. And in any event, those who have accepted responsibility in the public interest rather than the interest of their profession should of course act accordingly.

 

[1] Rules of Professional Conduct, Section 3.4, Paralegal Rules of Conduct, Rule 3.04

[2] See Alice Woolley’s slaw.ca column Bencher Elections – the Challenge to Self-Regulation’s Legitimacy

[3] Principle, not Politics

[4] Contingent Fees, Portfolio Risk and Competition – Calls for Reform

[5] Sections 6 and 7 of The Legal Profession Act, C.C.S.M. c. L107

[6] Unmet Legal Needs – The-challenge to legal practice and to self-regulation

[7] Independence and Self-Regulation

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Contingent Fees, Portfolio Risk and Competition – Calls for reform

(first published on slaw.ca)

In theory, contingent fee pricing is an elegant way of providing access to justice at a fair and reasonable price. In this column, I try to look at both theory and practice and also at prospects for reform.

Time and materials

Let’s start with a different approach to pricing. Legal work can be done on a “time and materials” basis (to use language from another industry), on a fixed fee basis or on a contingent fee basis. These different approaches shift risk between suppliers and consumers of legal services.

Legal work is still largely priced on a “time and materials” basis. While time spent is not the only factor considered when setting price, it is ordinarily the dominant factor.

Fixed Fees

Legal work is increasingly offered on a fixed fee basis. Where available, this is attractive to clients because of the increased certainty that fixed fees offer. Fixed fees can also allow increased competition as clients can more easily shop for a better price.

Where a fixed fee is agreed, the lawyer has the risk that the work may take more time than anticipated. Given that the lawyer likely has an understanding of what is required based on past work and given that the lawyer can make up losses on some fixed fee matters by gains on other fixed fee matters, this risk is mitigated. Where fixed fees are fairly agreed, it would be inappropriate for the client to be charged an increased cost because it turned out that extra time was required and it would be inappropriate for the client to demand a rebate because it turned out that less time was required than was anticipated. Either fixed prices are agreed or not.

But all of this assumes an effective market. For lawyers and clients, there is significant information asymmetry. Clients cannot assess whether a particular fixed price makes sense as clients ordinarily cannot assess the cost of the work to be done and likely outcomes. However, where prices are generally available, clients can “shop” based on price. Where prices are transparent and price shopping is possible, clients need not make their own assessments because a competitive market does so for them.

Contingent Fees

Contingent fees have some similarity to fixed prices. The price of the legal work is fixed as a percentage of the ultimate recovery. However, contingent fees add a further complexity as no fee is charged where there is no recovery.

There are two risks facing clients and lawyers, or paralegals, where personal injury and other disputes are to be resolved. There is the risk of non-recovery where liability is in issue. There is uncertainty as to the amount of the net recovery as both the amount of the recovery and the cost of obtaining recovery are uncertain. Because disputes can be settled at any stage (and are usually resolved by settlement rather than judicial decision), the cost of resolving a dispute is much more uncertain than, for example, the cost of completing a residential real estate transaction.

For the lawyer or paralegal, the risk inherent in contingent fees is mitigated by their expertise in assessing the risk inherent in particular matters and by their “portfolio” of cases. The situation of the client is very different. The client has no ability to assess the viability of their own case. The client has no portfolio through which to manage risk.

Portfolios of risks

While perhaps not obvious, investment by portfolio in the financial world offers the same risk management as having a portfolio of cases in the contingent fee world. A simple example shows the main advantage. Imagine a $1,000 bet based on a single coin toss. Heads you win $1,100. Tails you lose. There is a 50% chance of a complete loss. But imagine the same bet made on a portfolio of ten coin tosses. The probability of a complete loss drops to a little less than one in one-thousand and profit becomes very likely.

In the contingent fee context, a single contingent fee case can be very risky. But where work done in the losing cases can be recouped in the winning cases, risk is better managed. To make a very simple example, if there is a portfolio of cases each of which has a 50% chance of success and each of which requires a fixed amount work and disbursements worth $10,000, charging $20,000 for each case that is successful is a very low risk proposition even though the prospect of payment for any particular case is only 50/50.

Contingent fee work is more complicated than betting on coin tosses. The probability of success varies from case to case. The work and disbursements required in any given case is uncertain and difficult to accurately predict. More becomes known as the matter progresses. The outcome of a case is most uncertain at the outset. Assessing the amount of work to be done is also most uncertain at the outset of the matter. For a lawyer or paralegal, a contingent fee case is like a financial investment but with the added complexity that the amount to be invested is uncertain.

Modern portfolio theory says that risk is reduced by having a portfolio of risks. Before this was well understood, it used to be that trustees were only legally permitted to make certain “safe” investments. The idea was that the “prudent investor” would not make risky investments. However, we now know that a portfolio of higher risk investments can be low risk as a whole. The winners pay for the losers. The risk of having all losers is very much reduced by portfolio investment. Indeed, modern portfolio theory shows that a diverse portfolio of higher risk investments is likely to be more profitable than a portfolio of lower risk investments. But the investor must be able to enjoy the fruits of the winning investments for the portfolio to do its magic.

Contingent fees and markets

Injured people typically cannot afford the cost of the legal services required for their case. Borrowing the money to pay the cost of doing the necessary work is risky unless the case is not. Even assuming that recovery is quite likely, there is uncertainty as to the cost of obtaining recovery. Some cases settle quickly at low cost. Some cases go to trial or appeal. Contingent fees move this risk from the client to the lawyer or paralegal who can better assess the risk and reduce the risk by having a portfolio of cases.

But the contingent fee system will not work fairly in the real world unless there is an effective market in which contingent fees are set. Obviously, clients have limited insight into their cases. Otherwise, they would not need legal experts to assist them. Clients have no insight into the portfolio of cases maintained by their lawyers or paralegals. Where there is information asymmetry and a market which is not truly competitive, the party with superior information will have an advantage in setting prices. This either results in higher prices where the party with superior information is the supplier or by diminished demand from consumers or both.

It seems pretty clear that we do not have an effective market for contingent fees. While the problem of information asymmetry can be addressed by active bidding by informed suppliers for work, there is no good evidence of robust bidding being common. The significant growth of brand advertising appears to show that injured people have difficulty knowing who to approach for legal services. There is, at best, limited market information available to consumers or suppliers as to the costs of obtaining recovery. Unlike commodity products such as tomatoes or motor vehicles, assessing the expected value of a particular matter is not easy and requires information and expertise. We cannot directly assess whether the existing market is competitive as we have no information as to the profitability of the portfolios.

Ensuring fair and reasonable contingent fees

So how do we currently address the prospect of unfair and unreasonable contingent fees? The first way is by regulating the agreement entered into at the outset. The Solicitors Act establishes certain requirements and, in some circumstances, allows the parties to agree on a different approach with judicial approval. The second way is by considering, after the work is done, whether the contingent fee agreement and the contingent fee are fair and reasonable. For those who cannot represent themselves, the court must approve the ultimate fee. For others, the supervision of the court may be invoked by the assessment process.

The recent case of Evans Sweeny Bordin LLP v. Zawadzki, 2015 ONCA 756 considered judicial supervision of contingent fees and started with the proposition that “A contingency fee agreement is enforceable only if it is both fair and reasonable”.

The question of fairness and reasonableness could be considered based only on what was known at the outset of a matter. In theory at least, a contingent fee agreement that fairly and reasonably reflects the risk of non-recovery and of uncertainty in the cost of recovery would not need to be the subject of after the fact examination. Otherwise, the cases that are more lucrative for the lawyer or paralegal would not pay for the less lucrative cases and, as a result, lawyers and paralegals would decline to take on the higher risk or higher cost cases.

Nevertheless and as Evans Sweeny Bordin LLP makes clear, fairness is currently addressed after the fact, but as of the date of the contingency fee agreement. and reasonableness is addressed after the fact. For the later reasonableness assessment, the Court of Appeal cited with approval its earlier decision in Henricks-Hunter v. 814888 Ontario Inc. (Phoenix Concert Theatre), 2012 ONCA 496 which set out the following factors to be considered in the test for reasonableness:

(a) the time expended by the solicitor;

(b) the legal complexity of the matter at issue;

(c) the results achieved; and

(d) the risk assumed by the solicitor.

The Court of Appeal in Henricks-Hunter followed Raphael Partners v. Lam (2002), 61 OR (3d) 417 (OCA) which held that:

The factors relevant to an evaluation of the reasonableness of fees charged by a solicitor are well established. They include the time expended by the solicitor, the legal complexity of the matter at issue, the results achieved and the risk assumed by the solicitor. The latter factor includes the risk of non-payment where there is a real risk of an adverse finding on liability in the client’s case.

It is clear that our current approach to contingent fees provides for after-the-fact assessment and does not presume that a competitive market will result in reasonable contingent fees.

Calls for Reform – are caps the answer?

There has been much recent public controversy about contingent fees. There are private members bills calling for a cap on the percentage of recovery that may be charged. There are articles in the media decrying situations where the lawyer recovers more than the client or recovers an unusually high proportion of the recovery. The volume of advertisements on buses, taxis, television, the internet and elsewhere, without reference to price, may suggest that personal injury work is lucrative and worth substantial spending to attract work.

Unfortunately, the prescriptions may not address the disease or its symptoms. Following from the discussion above, where a limit is set on the percentage of the recovery that may be taken as a fee, the logical response may be not to take on riskier cases. Again assuming a competitive market and a diverse portfolio, the higher return winners pay for the higher risk losers. The policy problem is that we simply have no idea of the actual risk of the portfolio as a whole or its elements and we have no basis from which to conclude what percentage is unreasonable representing an uncompetitive market and what limit would fairly protect injured people and what limit would cause some injured people to lose access to justice because their cases will not be taken on. In an uncompetitive market, setting a limit can be tantamount to fixing a tariff as the cap becomes a signal to consumers who have no better information and may foster tacit collusion among firms.

There is another problem as well. For some cases which are vigorously defended, the cost of taking the case to trial is comparable to the amount in issue or even more. For those cases, a lawyer would generally be foolish to take on a case destined for trial if the potential recovery assuming success simply cannot fund the work required. But there are exceptions. A personal injury lawyer needs to be credible with defence counsel and insurers. Showing that cases will be tried if necessary makes settlement of other cases more likely. The threat of trial must be a credible threat to have value.

But it is said that there are areas of practice where the practical effect of limiting the contingent fee to a capped portion of the damages recovery would be that injured people would be denied access to justice. These are areas of practice where the risk and cost of obtaining recovery at trial is not commensurate with the damages award. even though it can be commensurate with the costs award together with a proportion of the damages award. Where there is a significant likelihood that a trial will be required, a lawyer is unlikely to accept a case where there isn’t a prospect of recovery of the lawyer’s risk-adjusted investment.

My point is not to argue in this column that there should or should not be a cap on the percentage fee. My point is that the question is tricky and that a cap may have unintended consequences and may not actually address the genuine issue at hand.

Some further thoughts about reform

As for the current after-the-fact assessment approach, there is value in that approach assuming that it is well done. At least in theory, assessing risk-return is a legitimate check on reasonableness. But there are at least two glaring problems1. The first is that an after-the-fact reasonableness assessment that looks only at the risk/return of the particular case fails to reflect that portfolio risk is less than the risk of any individual case. Absent portfolio information, there is a very real potential that after-the-fact reasonableness assessment is a Potemkin assessment. It looks real but isn’t. On the other hand, after-the-fact reasonableness assessment also fails to reflect the reality that only the “winners” get assessed. Portfolio information addresses this as well.

The second problem is that “successful” plaintiffs can have no idea whether their particular contingent fee is reasonable as they do not have the information that the courts have said is required for that assessment. They do not know the time expended by the solicitor, the legal complexity of the matter at issue, or the risk assumed by the lawyer. All that they know is the result achieved. There is no current obligation to disclose the other requisite information. There is no obligation to recommend an independent opinion or an assessment for cases where these factors suggest unreasonableness. That is not to say that responsible lawyers and paralegals will not take these factors into account in setting their ultimate fees. But a fiduciary cannot be permitted to withhold information that is necessary to hold the fiduciary accountable. The system should empower clients who do not know that they should be unhappy with their fees. It would be better if the system did not cause clients who ought to be happy with their fees to become unhappy. But it is surely unacceptable to hold back relevant information because the information may be misused.

Standing further back, can we make the contingent fee system more transparent and accordingly more competitive with the intent that a fair contingent fee agreement may be more reliably seen to generate a reasonable contingent fee? The answer must surely be yes. But this requires that portfolio information be gathered from lawyers and paralegals and aggregated so that injured people can have a better idea of the contingent pricing offered to them, so that lawyers and paralegals can better compete for work and so that society, through the courts, the government and the Law Society, can genuinely understand the risks and rewards involved in contingent fee work.

It is to be expected that lawyers and paralegals will resist reforms that impose costs on them, limit their returns and create uncertainty as to whether their contracts will be honoured. Cries of “bureaucracy” and “freedom of contract”2 will be heard. But it is necessary that the interests of injured people be kept firmly in mind rather than just the competing voices of advocates and insurers.

But it would be best if creative solutions could be found that maintain access to justice for injured people through contingent fees while better ensuring that substantive justice is obtained – that the amount taken from the compensatory recovery of an injured person is not unreasonable taking into account the risks and costs involved.

1 Noel Semple kindly reviewed a draft of this column and provided a number of helpful comments and suggestions. Noel raises a third glaring problem which is that risk is often not appreciated after the fact. What was reasonably seen to be risky at the outset may well not seem risky when the results are known. The reverse can be true as well.

2 Despite that our current contingent fee system requires after-the-fact assessment for fairness and reasonableness and the relative vulnerability of clients, some still argue that any reform should be on the basis on caveat emptor.

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Greater transparency of the results of investigated complaints?

(First published on slaw.ca)

It is difficult for prospective clients to obtain good information about lawyers and paralegals. The significant growth of brand advertising is cogent evidence of this. Potential clients assume that brand is evidence of quality when that may well not be the case. Substantial sums are paid for brand advertising because it works. Similarly, the advertising of dubious awards and reassuring photographs evidences that lack of genuine information about quality.

Concerns about lack of information

A recent market study in England and Wales by the Competition and Markets Authority said that:

… consumers generally lack the experience and information they need to find their way around the legal services sector and to engage confidently with providers. Consumers find it hard to make informed choices because there is very little transparency about price, service and quality … lack of transparency weakens competition between providers and means that some consumers do not obtain legal advice when they would benefit from it.

A similar conclusion was reached based on Ontario research in the 2010 Report of the Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project:

A significant challenge is to find ways to encourage more people to receive the full benefit of the existing resources available to them. People often can’t find legal help because they don’t know where to look, or because they perceive they won’t be able to afford it.

In a recent column, I wrote about market failure as a consequence of lack of consumer information potentially leading to a race to the bottom as high quality lawyers and paralegals (the “peaches”!) are unable to distinguish themselves from “lemons”.

What might help potential clients?

What can usefully be done about the lack of available information as to quality? There are a number of possibilities. One is to encourage genuine referral services (as opposed to mere brokerage services) and genuine ranking services (whether based on peer, client or other assessments) that assist potential clients in finding appropriate assistance.

Another is to move toward enhanced credentialing or limited licensing as a signal of expertise. Unlike some other professionals, all lawyers have unlimited licenses to practice law yet few, if any, have the competence to practice in all areas of the law. Beyond word of mouth and self-serving advertising, how is a client to figure out who to retain? While licensing tells potential clients that minimum standards of competence have been met and provides some assurance of professional conduct, the mere fact of licensing does not allow potential clients to distinguish between individual licensees.

The Law Society is a source of some useful information beyond the mere fact of licensing. The certified specialist program provides an indication of expertise. Public Law Society Tribunal records provide some information with respect to past professional conduct.

A look at 2016 LSUC complaints information

With the issue of useful information in mind, I read with interest the recent LSUC reports 2016 End-of-Year Report for the Professional Regulation Division and the Analysis of Complaints in Professional Regulation in 2016.

The number of complaints[1] received in the Professional Regulation Division has remained stable in absolute number at slightly less than 5,000 per year despite increasing numbers of lawyers and paralegals. The number of complaints per lawyer and paralegal in private practice is very similar at just over 10% for each type of licensee. The trend is generally downward for both over the last six years.

In 2016, the Intake Department dealt with some 4,400 complaints. 2,152 complaints were sent for investigation. 2,243 complaints were closed in the Intake Department. Of the 2,243 closed complaints, 236 were marked as “resolved” suggesting that there was something to resolve but not something meriting formal investigation. The balance were closed for a number of reasons including the conclusion that no further regulatory action was required, the absence of jurisdiction and the formal (or practical) withdrawal of the complaint.

In 2016, 2,018 new complaints were instructed for investigation[2] and investigations staff closed 2,334 instructed complaints. Perhaps not surprisingly, client service issues are the most common followed by integrity, governance and financial issues. To state the obvious, potential clients are interested in knowing whether they will be well served by professionals with integrity who are prepared to be governed and deal properly with financial matters.

How investigated complaints are ultimately dealt with is interesting. Over the last three years, only between 10% and 15% of investigated complaints have been transferred for prosecution. During the same period, approximately 40% have been closed on the basis that there is no evidence or insufficient evidence warranting regulatory action.

There is a substantial number of investigated complaints where the result is some action short of prosecution. Some are closed with diversion such as a Regulatory Meeting, an Invitation to Attend, a Letter of Advice, a recommendation for a practice or spot audit or by an undertaking from the licensee[3]. In the last three years, some 2% to 4% of investigated complaints have been closed investigations with diversion. A more substantial proportion of investigated complaints (approximately 20% to 30% over the last three years) have been closed with a staff caution or with best practice advice. The bottom line is that approximately one-quarter to one-third of investigated complaints raise regulatory issues and result in a regulatory response short of prosecution.

There are different types of complaints information

To make the obvious point, the Law Society has information about lawyers and paralegals that is not publicly available and which might well provide useful information to prospective clients. But the obvious counterpoint is that some of the same information could be unfairly prejudicial to the licensee if publicly available.

There is a spectrum of regulatory engagement from (i) mere receipt of a complaint to (ii) instruction of a complaint for investigation to (iii) determination after investigation that regulatory action is merited short of prosecution to (iv) prosecution. There was a time when our regulatory process was so lawyer-centric that even prosecutions and findings of professional misconduct were not transparent. That time has passed and the question now arises, given the genuine difficulty faced by potential clients in obtaining information, whether the current balance is the appropriate balance.

Discussion in England and Wales

Greater disclosure by legal services regulators is currently being discussed in England and Wales. The 2016 Interim Legal Services Market Study Report of the Competition and Markets Authority asked[4] “Are there any measures of quality that can readily be collected by regulators or government … on observable trends in quality of legal services?”. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (the SRA) responded saying that there are “a number of other indicators regulators can use, which cumulatively can give an indication of quality” including claims against the compensation fund, insurance claims and complaints data. The SRA also said:

Our Codes contain the minimum requirements for those we regulate, all of which are mandatory. We also require diversity data to be published. We are currently considering what information about SRA regulated individuals or firms we should publish or require firms or individuals to publish, and are planning on releasing a discussion paper by the end of the year subject to decisions being taken by our Board. The areas we are looking at include regulatory action, complaints data, insurance claims data and accreditations.

The Law Society of England and Wales[5] responded to the subsequent SRA discussion paper by raising concerns about accuracy and relevance and suggesting that it was better for law firms to voluntarily provide information in the competitive market. Of course, this approach would mean that negative information about solicitors would not be made available.

Thinking about disclosure

It is to be expected that lawyers and paralegals would be uncomfortable with greater transparency of complaints or claims information. We imagine this from our own perspective and fear disclosure of unfair or misleading information (and even true but embarrassing information). For example, it would be natural for family law lawyers to be concerned about disclosure of complaints from the opposite party given the often dysfunctional nature of family law proceedings.

That said, it is clear that further and better information about lawyers and paralegals is needed. From the client perspective, better transparency is desirable while, of course, protecting confidential and privileged information.

Perhaps the practical answer to concerns about disclosure of unfair or misleading information is careful focus on what should be disclosed. If there is only disclosure about investigated complaints which have led to a regulatory outcome then what would be disclosed would be the result of investigation and evaluation. Fear of disclosure of malicious or unfounded complaints would not be justified.

It might also be worth considering whether there should be disclosure of single or stale matters. It may be that little if any real information is provided if a single matter is disclosed or if a relatively ancient episode continues to be disclosed. Treating stale matters as such is somewhat analogous to the evolving “right to be forgotten” that is of increasing importance in which so much personal information is available and for so long on the internet. As well, it may be worth considering whether contextual information could also be provided, for example the average number of such complaints for licensees generally or, say, family law lawyers specifically.

Up to this point, the discipline process has not been discussed. The main point to be made here is that allowing transparency about some investigated complaints and a formal discipline record are different things. There is no need and no apparent reason for the information available to the public also to be information that is treated as relevant by the Law Society Tribunal in assessing appropriate discipline penalties. There is good reason to limit Tribunal panels to consider only findings of professional misconduct by prior panels.

But the “right to be forgotten” discussion raises a point that some have made about formal discipline histories. To use an extreme example, should there continue to be transparency about a reprimand given 25 years ago absent any subsequent proceedings? Discipline panels routinely conclude that a stale disciplinary history is irrelevant for current purposes. Perhaps it should also irrelevant for the public purposes.

If it is accepted that potential clients have insufficient information to properly assess the quality of lawyers and paralegals (leaving them instead reliant on brand advertising, irrelevant and misleading “awards” and photographs of reassuring faces), then it follows that we should be thinking carefully about whether further information can be disclosed. It also follows that it is proper to think about the utility and the fairness of further disclosure.

It should be recognized that lawyers and paralegals will almost inevitably resist disclosure of complaints information, even investigated complaints leading to regulatory action. But it should also be recognized that there is another perspective that must be considered which, as always, has no advocate.

[1]      Complaints can come from clients, other parties, other lawyers, judges and the Law Society itself. While professional regulatory process is largely reactive, the Law Society itself initiates the complaints where matters come to its attention that may deserve further consideration.

[2]      The Law Society Act provides that the Law Society has certain investigative powers where the conclusion is reached that there is sufficient information indicative of professional misconduct or lack of capacity. In these circumstances, PRD says that a complaint has been instructed for investigation.

[3]      Some of those transferred for prosecution are also closed with diversion.

[4]      This interplay between the competition authority and the legal services regulatory provides an example of a productive interplay in which competition issues are raised while the regulator keeps independence.

[5]      Unlike our law societies, the Law Society of England and Wales is the representative of and advocate for solicitors.

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Access to justice needs access to research

First published on slaw.ca

In December, the UK Competition & Markets Authority released its Legal services market study focused on individual consumer and small business experience of purchasing legal services in England and Wales. Not surprisingly, this report (the “CMA Market Study”) found:

Overall, we have found that the legal services sector is not working well for individual consumers and small businesses. These consumers generally lack the experience and information they need to find their way around the legal services sector and to engage confidently with providers. Consumers find it hard to make informed choices because there is very little transparency about price, service and quality.

This finding will be entirely unsurprising to anyone with passing familiarity with the substantial body of work, in Canada and elsewhere, showing unmet legal needs and lack of access to justice and legal services.

Naturally given the mandate of the Competition & Markets Authority, the CMA Market Study comes at these issues from a market perspective. This report looks at whether the market for legal services works effectively and concludes that it does not. The above quotation from this report makes the fundamental point which is that individual consumers and small businesses are not generally sophisticated purchasers of legal services and the providers of legal services provide very little transparency about price, service and quality. Entirely by coincidence, I wrote about this very point in my last column Access to Justice and Market Failure which focused on information asymmetry and market failure. As the CMA Market Study says:

Our market study was prompted by a range of concerns raised by interested parties, including concerns relating to the affordability of legal services, the high proportion of consumers that were not seeking to purchase legal services when they had legal needs (‘unmet demand’) and the possibility that regulation might be dampening competition.

Most of these concerns can be linked to the fact that the legal services sector is characterised by incomplete or asymmetric information. Consumers are often unable to judge quality before (or sometimes even after) they choose to buy a legal service. Information asymmetries can give rise to consumer protection issues, which provides part of the rationale for sector-specific regulation.

If legal services are to continue to be predominantly delivered by the market rather than the state (through legal aid or otherwise), it is important to be clear thinking about the realities of markets. This market study is an important evidence-based contribution to that thinking. But the point of this column is not to focus on the CMA Market Study.

The point that I want to make in this column is to highlight the importance of high quality research to truly addressing problems of access to justice and unmet legal needs. Not an exciting point to be sure but an important one, I think.

 In reading the CMA Market Study, I was reminded of another quite different study. In 2009, the Department of Justice Canada released a report prepared by Ab Currie of its Research and Statistics Division. The report was entitled The Legal Problems of Everyday Life – The Nature, Extent and Consequences of Justiciable Problems Experienced by Canadians. This is a fundamentally important work that looked the everyday experiences of ordinary Canadians. The first paragraphs of this report (the “Justice Canada Report”) are important:

The problems of civil justice, of access to civil justice and of unmet need for service in civil justice are most commonly studied from the point of view of the justice system, mainly with regard to the courts. The large, and reportedly increasing, number of self representing litigants crowding the courts is the issue that currently dominates both public and professional discourse. This is certainly an important problem, one that is as much a problem for the courts, mainly with respect to justice system efficiencies, as it is for the individuals who find themselves adrift without professional assistance in the complex and unfamiliar environment of the civil courts.

However, a wider perspective than one that begins with the courts is required to understand the full breadth of civil justice problems. It is widely accepted that many people with serious civil justice problems do not have access to the courts and thus do not appear as un-represented litigants. It is also part of the growing orthodoxy that many problems could be better resolved using alternative means, without engaging in expensive and lengthy court proceedings.

Two points can be taken from this quotation. The first is that access to justice/unmet legal needs is not just about what happens in the courts. Given our training as lawyers and especially for litigators, it is not surprising that we tend to see these issues as being about courts. To a hammer, everything is a nail.

The second and more important point is that there are a number of different and necessary perspectives from which to understand the extent and causes of unmet legal needs. The Justice Canada Report looked at the unmet legal needs of ordinary people by focusing on the problems of everyday life. The CMA Market Study examines the operation of the market for legal services. Neither report focuses on non-market provision of legal services through legal aid and otherwise or effect of the law and legal institutions on access to justice. This is no criticism – to the contrary. Understanding how a complex system works, does not work and should be reformed requires thoughtful analysis looking at the different component parts of the system separately and together.

Returning to the Justice Canada Report itself, it is significant in several ways. The first is that it is a Canada-wide report. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. We have a real risk of parochial understandings and approaches especially given how much of legal services is within provincial jurisdictions.  The second is that there is significant efficiency and efficacy in doing serious research and analysis at the national level. To state the blindingly obvious, access to justice and unmet legal needs are not only local problems even if some of the solutions must be.

Further, the Justice Canada Report had a significant on subsequent work and understanding. The Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project undertaken as a joint research project of the Law Society of Upper Canada, Legal Aid Ontario, and Pro Bono Ontario  lead to Listening to Ontarians focused on demand for legal services among low and middle-income Ontarians and The Geography of Civil Legal Services in Ontario focused the demographic characteristics of the Ontario population and the distribution of legal services. In 2011,  a colloquium was held at the U of T law school which lead to Middle Income Access to Justice,a collection of essays  about civil justice issues from Canada, Britain, the United States, and Australia. Most recently, the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice has undertaken the Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada National Survey which addresses the costs to individuals and to society of addressing and failing to address legal problems. In providing these examples, I don’t want to suggest direct causal lines from one project to another and I’ve not attempted to create a comprehensive listing of important work in this area. The point that I make is that each important piece of research from one perspective enables and betters further research. Understanding that there are unmet civil needs leads, for example, to consideration of the costs of addressing and failing to address legal needs.

Earlier this year,  White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Civil Legal Aid Research Workshop Report was released (not exactly a consumer-friendly name). Richard Zorza describes this report in his Access to Justice Blog

 Formally titled White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Civil Legal Aid Research Workshop Report, this Report represents a major milestone in one of the [U.S. Department of Justice Office for Access to Justice’s] most important initiatives.  It is no accident that since the Office was created, and particularly since [the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable] was set up, we have seen an explosion of research interest in access to justice.  Prior recommendations to create research capacity in this field went unheard ever since the 1980’s when this capacity at [Legal Services Corporation was closed down.

Again, the point o f this column is not to examine the substance of this US report which is well described in Richard Zorza’s blog. Rather, the quotation above shows a parallel with the impact of the Research and Statistics Division of the Department of Justice in Abe Currie’s Justice Canada Report. Research capacity matters. Sadly, whether the US research capacity continues must now be uncertain given the recent election. In England and Wales, the CMA Report provides important insight but the ongoing research capacity of the Legal Services Board is important as is the fact that this research is not just from the lawyers’ perspective. This is inherent in the history and mandate of the Legal Services Board as well as a reflection of the impact of the LSB Consumer Panel.

So what is the punch line to all of this. The starting point is that research capacity matters. The next point is that good research leads to more good research and analysis. A virtuous cycle follows. Further, we cannot effectively address serious systemic issues like access to justice and unmet legal needs by intuitive responses that reflect our own limited perspectives. We need solid research and analysis.

What this leads to is to make two final points. The first is to encourage the Department of Justice to continue the good work that is reflected in the Justice Canada Report. While we now have further capacity, there is real value in maintaining  long term research capacity and Department of Justice is a natural place for such capacity given its breadth, depth and resources.

The second comes out of a recent discussion. There are many players in the legal system including attorneys general and their ministries, legal aid providers, the courts, law societies and universities. Each are busy doing their own work and thereby generating information/data about the justice system. While it is understandable, each player sees the value of its own information to itself but will not see the value to others including to researchers. Perhaps the time has come to take an open data approach to information about the legal system with a view to encouraging research and analysis addressing access to justice and unmet legal needs.

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Debatable: Robo-Advising Could be a Boon for Access to Justice

First published in OBA’s Just Magazine as a debate with Joe Groia

For hundreds of years, lawyers have spent their time and expertise providing valuable assistance to their clients.

Lawyer incomes have remained reasonably stable in real terms over the decades. Statistics Canada reports the median professional income for Ontario lawyers was just over $125,000 in 2014. Over time, lawyer professional incomes have been reasonably well correlated with family incomes. This is not surprising. Intelligent, well-educated, hard-working lawyers have generally maintained their economic position – and lawyer incomes are tied to the ability of clients to pay their fees.

Considering lawyer incomes and overheads and the number of hours that can be billed in a year, it inevitably follows that lawyers charge fees in the hundreds of dollars per hour (whether described that way or not).

For some problems, this works pretty well. Limited lawyer time is required for a residential real estate transaction or a drafting a will. Most people buying or selling real estate or with an estate have the money to pay for the necessary legal work.

For other legal problems, there is a problem. In criminal law, family law and personal injury, the number of required lawyer hours means that many ordinary people can’t afford to pay. Ironically, many lawyers couldn’t afford themselves. This reality plays out differently in different areas. In personal injury law, lawyers are paid out of the ultimate compensation, if any. In family law, most litigants simply don’t use lawyers. In criminal law, legal aid assists the poor. For the middle-class, being an accused can be ruinous. Our justice system is a mostly unaffordable wonder for ordinary people.

What isn’t obvious is how little lawyers actually do for ordinary people. Surveys repeatedly show that lawyer work is generally limited to criminal law, family law, personal injury, real estate and estates law. Studies have shown that over 85% of all “justiciable events” are addressed by ordinary people without legal assistance.

Lawyers don’t offer services if people won’t pay for them and … lots of legal issues can’t be addressed at a cost of hundreds of dollars per hour.

So why would people not go to lawyers when facing a legal issue? The practical answer is that lawyers don’t offer services if people won’t pay for them and that lots of legal issues can’t be addressed at a cost of hundreds of dollars per hour. The result is legal needs that are unserved and underserved by lawyers.

Two other examples are helpful. Like lawyers, investment advisors spend time offering investment advice and transactional assistance. Unlike lawyers, investment advisors commonly charge fees based on the value of the investments involved. This means that investment advisors limit their clientele to those who have sufficient investable assets to pay their fees. So those with insufficient assets leave their money in their bank accounts, buy GICs or perhaps put their money in expensive bank mutual funds.

Tax assistance provides another example. Taxes can be complicated and difficult. For some, accountants prepare taxes. Others have used bookkeepers or tax preparers. But historically, many late April nights have been spent over kitchen tables trying to fill out tax forms.

In 2016, many people now use Quicken TurboTax or comparable products. Instead of teaching tax advisors how to spent their time preparing tax returns, Quicken has created a robo-advisor that can be downloaded and used at home. While the TurboTax software is no doubt expensive to create and maintain, the additional cost of a TurboTax download is relatively negligible. This low “marginal cost” means that the unit price is low. Ordinary people who once spent late nights stressing out over their tax returns now use a robo tax advisor instead.

In 2016, investment assistance is also provided by robo-advisors. The growth in the use of robo-advisors over the past several years is reported to have been significant. What is most interesting is that robo-advisory services are being provided to clients who don’t have sufficient investable assets to merit the interest of a traditional investment advisor. The same “low marginal cost” economics that permit TurboTax to be offered at relatively low prices apply here too.

So what about law? There are parallels between legal advice, tax advice and investment advice. Where provided through the traditional professional advisor, there are unserved needs because the labour-intensive expert model has lower limits to the price at which it can deliver. But where technology and capital are applied, lower priced services can be delivered.

This is not radical imagining. Examples already exist. The most recently, the Manchester Guardian reported “Chatbot lawyer overturns 160,000 parking tickets in London and New York”. While less newsworthy, Neota Logic and Littler Mendelsohn deliver robo compliance advice to Littler’s HR clients. This is not to suggest that a robo-advocate in court is desirable or even plausible. But there are aspects of existing legal services that lend themselves to robo-advisors. An obvious example is family law where complicated court forms and rules could be addressed with robo-assistance. Notably, a Quicken Family Law product was introduced in Texas several years ago only to be challenged by the state bar as unauthorized practice of law.

Of course, it is speculative to say that robo legal advisors can substantially address currently unserved and underserved legal needs. But the fact that this is speculative is because only licensed lawyers and paralegals are now permitted to provide legal services. And the ability to provide software-driven internet-delivered intelligent services is obviously increasing. What is possible today is not what will be possible in the years to come.

For some lawyers, this is scary. Some of what we do may well be more cost-effectively done in new ways. But lawyers don’t come close to fully serving the legal needs that exist in society. There can be no ethical justification for prohibiting that which lawyers don’t actually provide nor, more scarily, what can be effectively provided at lower cost. And there may even be opportunities for lawyers up to new challenges!

Ultimately, we can attempt to prohibit new legal services that lawyers cannot cost effectively provide. We can ignore new providers hoping that nothing goes wrong. Or we can thoughtfully regulate legal services in the public interest including “robo-lawyers”.

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Lawyers and Audits – The new Joint Policy Statement effective December 1, 2016

Shareholders, investors, lenders and others have a vital interest in proper financial disclosure by entities in which they have an economic interest. Making sensible business decisions is often difficult. It is impossible without proper information. Audited financial statements play a central role in financial disclosure.

Disclosure is a good thing and a bad thing

Some assets and liabilities are simply reflected in financial statements. Some are not so simple. Contingent assets and liabilities can be tricky. The contingency may or may not arise. Assuming the contingency, the value of the contingent asset or liability is often uncertain. The uncertainties may be such that a value is not fairly included in the balance sheet but a note may be appropriate to alert the reader to the risk. What should be disclosed and how is a matter of importance for auditors who are called upon to opine on financial statements.

Lawyers are commonly involved in significant contingencies. Whether in civil, regulatory or administrative matters, lawyers pursue and defend their clients’ interests. Whether the client will be successful, or not, can be uncertain as may be the quantum. Assessment of the current value of contingencies can be difficult. It is no surprise that clients and auditors look to lawyers to assist in the evaluation of these contingencies.

But there is a complication. These contingencies are determined through an adversarial process. The client is entitled to professional confidentiality and privilege in its dealings with counsel.

On one hand, disclosure is necessary for fair evaluation of the financial situation of the client. On the other hand, disclosure may adversely affect the financial situation of the client by compromising the interests of the client in the adversarial process. Disclosure is a good thing from the one perspective. Admissions against interest are a bad thing from the other. Assistance from lawyers makes for better financial disclosure. But assistance that compromises privilege thereby compromising the client’s interests is a bad thing.

Ironically, perfect disclosure of a client’s financial information may compromise the client’s financial prospects.

A new Joint Policy Statement

In 1978, the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants released the Joint Policy Statement on Audit Enquiries (1978). That Joint Policy Statement sought to advance two key goals. The first was to practically address the inherent conundrum described above, to maximize financial disclosure while minimizing the adverse financial consequences of doing so. The second was to allow two quite different professions to communicate with each other.

Nearly forty years later,  the Canadian Bar Association and the Auditing and Assurance Standards Board of Chartered Professional Accountants Canada have now replaced the old Joint Policy Statement.

The new Joint Policy Statement is effective for inquiry letters dated December 1, 2016 or later.

What has changed?

In some respects, Joint Policy Statement is unchanged. There is value in established practice. For example, “claims” and “possible claims” are important concepts under the Joint Policy Statements.  Tinkering with the definitions of these important terms is tempting. But the likely consequence would be that some lawyers would continue to use the old definitions and new definitions might contain new difficulties. There is no change to the meaning of “claims” and “possible claims” which remain key definitions.

Another important principle is that lawyers are not to express opinions in audit response letters.   Management evaluates claims and possible claims. Lawyers advise whether the management evaluations are reasonable. This approach reflects that auditors rely on management in the audit process and seeks to protect privilege by not having lawyers express their opinions. This approach is unchanged.

But there are changes. Among the more significant changes is the express inclusion of in‐house counsel, recognizing the expanded role of in‐house counsel in client matters. Another significant change seeks to resolve concerns expressed by the legal profession regarding communication protocols with the auditors, particularly with respect to the timing of inquiries and responses.

A further significant change reflects the emergence of new audit standards in recent years. In 1978, there was just one financial reporting framework. In 2016, financial reporting frameworks include the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), Accounting Standards for Private Enterprises (ASPE), Accounting Standards for Not-for-profit organizations (NFPOs). Rather than seeking to have lawyers learn and apply new and different frameworks, the Joint Policy is written on a framework-neutral basis. Audit inquiries are to be written so that audit responses can be written without reference to the applicable framework. The Joint Policy seeks to allow lawyers to be lawyers and auditors to be auditors and yet to communicate with each other.

Assistance is available

The CBA has provided on-line tools to assist lawyers with the new Joint Policy Statement as follows:

The CBA is also providing a webinar on May 25, 2016 entitled The New JPS: What You Need to Know

 

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