Tag Archives: legal services

Access to Justice

ABS and access to justice

Why we must make it easier for lawyers to deliver services more broadly.

Canadians live in a miraculously complex society. Our market economy allows us to produce and consume diverse goods and services. Our democratic governments establish laws which permit economic and social stability. We take all of this for granted and, perhaps understandably, focus on the imperfections rather than being astonished that this complex system works at all. Things are very different in much of the rest of the world.

The significance of law as an underpinning of this complex society cannot be overestimated. Law permits economic relations to be reliably established and investments to be safely made. Law ameliorates market imperfections. Law governs the relations between each of us in our daily lives as well as in our economic relations. Law helps ensure that our governments remain democratic and that those holding state power act within the authority democratically assigned to them. Laws limit the power of government over each and all of us.

Professor Gillian Hadfield says that we live in a “law-thick world”. This legal “thickness” is necessary for our complex system to work yet the legal system is largely incomprehensible for most individuals in society. This is why lawyers exist. Law is important but not easily navigated. Assistance is required. As Justice Major put it for the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. McClure in the context of solicitor-client privilege:

… The law is a complex web of interests, relationships and rules. The integrity of the administration of justice depends upon the unique role of the solicitor who provides legal advice to clients within this complex system. …

As Professor Alice Woolley has written human dignity, freedom and productive relationships depend on this complex legal system:

… the dignity and freedom that the law promotes is not merely the freedom to be left alone, but is also directed towards “creating conditions in which [citizens] can actualize their values by supporting their creative endeavors and helping them structure their commitments within productive relationships and supportive communities.” The lawyer assists in the creation of those conditions for clients.

If we accept the significance of law to members of our society and that the complexity of our legal system is such that legal assistance is required by most members of society when legal issues are engaged then the moral and public policy importance of access to legal services is obvious.

The essential issue addressed by alternative business structures (ABS) is access to legal services. This issue falls naturally into two aspects namely the areas in which there is no or very limited access and the areas where access is unnecessarily limited.

The intent of ABS is to allow the market to better deliver services by liberalization of existing regulatory constraints. This is not to suggest that there are no other mechanisms to address aspects of the same issues such as increased legal aid and enhanced public legal clinics. But ABS, better legal aid and public legal clinics are not mutually exclusive. Good public policy considers both public and market mechanisms to solve difficult problems. Different parts of complex problems can be addressed by different policy approaches.

To descend from the philosophical heights, what do lawyers actually do for individuals in society? This is an important question in understanding unmet or insufficiently met legal needs. The answer is clear. Lawyers defend individuals in criminal proceedings. Lawyers act for individuals in family law and personal injury matters. Lawyers act in residential real estate transactions and in wills and estates matters. This is confirmed by surveys of what lawyers say they do for individuals and surveys of what individuals say they use lawyers for.

The access issue is not pressing in residential real estate matters or in wills and estates matters where there are material assets involved. Individuals who have significant assets to be transferred by purchase and sale or on death have the resources to obtain legal assistance and the value of what is being transferred justifies the cost of the lawyers’ fees.

The access issue is not pressing in personal injury matters because lawyers in Canada can act on a contingent basis collecting their fees on settlement or success at trial. While there are likely meritorious cases that are not brought because the quantum in issue is insufficient to attract a lawyer acting contingently and while contingent fees may be higher than need be, it is right to observe that access to justice in personal injury matters is much less relevant than in other areas.

While access in criminal law matters is of concern, public, rather than market, solutions are likely of greater significance given the rights involved and the nature of criminal law representation. This is where legal aid and public legal clinics are most important. It is difficult to see, for most individuals involved in criminal proceedings, how market liberalization would have much useful effect.

This leaves family law, which is an obvious access disaster within the range of 70 percent of family law litigants being unrepresented in family law proceedings according to the important work of Professor Julie Macfarlane. This is an area in which it seems likely that facilitating other ways of providing service could help even if the actual proceedings before the court are unlikely to be affected. Allowing family law lawyers to work better together with social workers, psychologists and accountants seems sensible. Some aspects of family law work (financial statements and other court documents) should benefit from technological and process innovations and access to other expertise.

It is no surprise, with this review, that lawyers are sceptical about the access issue and about market liberalization including ABS. Other than in family law, what lawyers mostly see is what lawyers can do despite existing business structure constraints. The main exception is family law where families are forced into legal proceeding because of failed relationships, yet lawyers cannot provide assistance at a cost that makes sense for many families.

But the perspective of individuals is different because individuals know when they don’t go to lawyers even though lawyers have no idea. According to the 2009 Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project, fully one-third of low- and middle-income Ontarians do not seek legal assistance for what they regard as legal problems. According to Pro Bono Law Ontario, large numbers of individuals are provided pro bono assistance by PBLO in non-family law civil litigation. Few of these are personal injury matters. According to a Department of Justice study in 2009, 42.2% of respondents who suffered a personal injury problem consulted someone other than a lawyer about that problem and presumably took proceedings for compensation.

And individuals commonly do not understand which day to day problems are legal problems. According to the 2009 Department of Justice study, legal advice is sought for less than 15% of justiciable problem in Canada.

There is another perspective from which to better understand unmet legal needs. With the advent of the internet and continued development of technology, unregulated legal services are now being delivered by entities such as LegalZoom. In order to avoid prosecution for unauthorized practice of law, these services are essentially do-it-yourself forms. That there is a market for these services strongly suggesting real opportunities for internet-based software-assisted form generation and other assistance.

There is no doubt that there are substantial areas on unmet legal needs. It seems logical to think that market liberalization could permit new ways of servicing these legal needs. Yet it must be conceded that there have not yet been surveys in jurisdictions permitting ABSs addressing whether legal needs have been better addressed after introduction of ABSs. And looking carefully at ABSs in operation in Australia and in England suggests that the largest practical effect of ABSs has been in personal injury. While there is evidence of ABS impact in England in mental health, consumer and social welfare matters, the volume of services delivered in those areas is not yet substantial. While there is evidence both in Australia and England of large consumer legal services firms established as ABSs providing family law services, there is not yet evidence of material positive impact on access issues in family law.

The conundrum faced is that the delivery of legal services is broadly reserved to lawyers (and licensed paralegals in Ontario). Yet what lawyers actually do for individuals is rather limited. There are substantial areas where lawyers do not provide services and, strictly speaking, no one else is allowed to do so either. While market liberalization should expand the legal services that are actually provided, the evidence so far from Australia and England indicates that market liberalization has a greater effect on personal injury work than in areas of greatest unmet or underserved legal needs.

While some will no doubt respond to this conundrum by asserting that nothing should change because change is complicated, one of the options that should be on the table for consideration is limited liberalization while we watch the results of greater liberalization in Australia and England. It may be that those concerned about consolidation in the personal injury sector are right to be concerned. Or it may turn out that, contrary to expectations of personal injury lawyers, large “consumer” firms can provide appropriate services. But there is no good way of sorting out the right answer now and time may tell.

But what doesn’t make sense is simply protecting existing ways of providing legal services when it is clear that there are significant access failures. The better alternative is to make it easier for lawyers to deliver services more broadly. But if that is not acceptable then the alternative must be to allow others to do what lawyers do not do.

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A Different Take on ABS

A Different Take on ABS – Proponents and Opponents Both Miss the Point

The Lawyers Weekly recently included an article by Cristin Schmitz entitled Study sounds note of caution in ABS debate. Ms. Schmitz discusses a thoughtful paper by Nick Robinson who is a research fellow with the Harvard Program on the Legal Profession.

In an interview with Ms. Schmitz, Mr. Robinson said:

“I’ve been amazed in this debate how much each side kind of talks past each other, dismisses the concerns of the other side, or the point of the other side. I am a bit cautious about non-lawyer ownership in the paper, but I can also see in certain situations how it could be beneficial.”

Dueling Arguments

The Robinson paper starts its discussion with what is described as the often “polarizing” claims made by ABS proponents and opponents. Proponents claim that non-lawyer ownership will increase access to legal services while opponents claim that it will undercut professionalism.

The arguments for the proponents are said to be that (i) access to outside capital permits economies of scale, infrastructure and specialization, (ii) non-lawyer ownership is an avenue not just to economic capital but also to “high-value employee with different skills sets”, (iii) outside investment allows consumers better information and quality of service by the development of brands which provide consumer information and an incentive to ensure quality and (iv) a business offering multiple types of services can provide services with greater convenience and efficiency.

The arguments for the opponents are said to be that (i) owners who are not themselves providing legal services are not personally invested in the labour of the enterprise and will accordingly be interested only in profits and not professional ideals and norms, (ii) non-lawyer ownership creates the potential for conflicts between the duties owed to investors and the duties owed to clients and the justice system, (iii) providing non-legal services together with legal services creates greater risk of misuse of confidential client information and unauthorized practice of law.

The paper suggests that, while these dueling perspectives both bring important insights, “the actual impact of non-lawyer ownership is likely to be quite different that either of these traditional accounts suggests” in material ways.

Country Studies

With a view to examining what actually has happened as opposed to the theoretical claims of proponents and opponents, the paper next considers the impact of ABS in Australia, England and the United States.

England

The paper examines two aspects of the English experience namely the effect of ABS on the personal injury and the insurance industry and the relatively limited impact of ABS on family law as opposed to the significant impact of cuts in legal aid.

As for personal injury, the paper notes ABS licensees are disproportionately concentrated in some sectors, particularly personal injury, where ABS firms account for one-third of the personal injury market share by last report. The paper suggests two reasons for this concentration. The first is recent unintended regulatory incentives which have encouraged claims management and insurance firms to invest in law firms. The second is that:

The personal injury market is both historically large and, at least in recent years, disproportionately profitable, making it a clear target for outside investors. Personal injury firms also require capital-intensive upfront costs, particularly in advertising and in creating an organizational infrastructure to screen and process claims.

The paper notes the risk for systemic conflict of interest between insurers and injured persons and the likelihood that economic efficiencies are not likely to much affect access where injured persons generally do not pay for legal services whether because of contingent fees, insurance or other arrangements.

As for family law, the paper notes that the Cooperative, an ABS with a social mission, has not been able to halt the massive increase in unrepresented litigants arising from the legal aid cuts of 2013 despite being one of the largest providers of family law services. The paper does not suggest that the adverse impact of these legal aid cuts has not been mitigated and will not be further mitigated but that the legal aid cuts had the more significant impact at least in the short term.

Australia

As for Australia, the focus of the paper is on the consolidation of the personal injury market with three firms now making up nearly one-half of the plaintiffs side of the market. The largest of the three has been publicly traded since 2007. The second largest is not an ABS. The third became a publicly traded ABS in 2013. The paper suggests that this consolidation is likely the result of regulatory factors such as prohibition of contingency fees and restrictions to the type of advertising allowed. The paper notes that the two firms that are now publicly traded were consolidating prior to their access to non-lawyer investment and that the other large firm does not have non-lawyer investment. Nevertheless, the paper suggests that publicly owned firms may have an advantage in acquiring other firms.

The paper draws limited conclusions from the Australian experience about non-lawyer ownership per se. The paper doubts that non-lawyer ownership is necessary for consolidation and closes with the observation that “Non-lawyer ownership may impact the cases these firms select and how they manage them, but, despite some aspersions otherwise, so far in Australia there is no clear evidence that it has led to significant new conflicts of interest”.

The United States

Despite non-lawyer ownership of legal practices being prohibited in the United States, the paper examines Legal Zoom and social security disability representation as close parallels.

The paper suggests that the effect of Legal Zoom is not well documented although access has likely been increased by pressure on prices. However, the paper notes that “a company like Legal Zoom is aimed primarily at small business and the upper middle class. In other words, people with the capacity to know that they have a legal problem and the resources and savviness to be able to seek out its answer and pay for it”. The paper also suggests that Legal Zoom has not increased access by “significantly decreasing the overall number of people without wills”[i].

The paper also considers the provision of social security representation which is permitted to be delivered by non-lawyers. The main point made by the paper seems to be that relationships between these firms and insurers and the social security agency has allowed for new potential conflicts to arise.

Observation

While the paper fairly describes this examination as being the “most extensive empirical investigation to date on the impact of non-lawyer ownership by focusing on its effects on civil legal needs for poor and moderate-income populations”, the actual empirical examination is nevertheless very limited. Recognizing the need of improved collection of data, the paper recommends that:

regulators should attempt to better track the cost of commonly used legal services, the demand for legal services, how these legal services are used, different pathways to resolving a legal issue, and how litigants use the courts. Sector specific studies should also periodically study the functioning of markets for specific legal services such as personal injury, immigration, probate, conveyancing, or family law.

Implications of the Empirical Review

The paper starts its consideration of its empirical review with the following observation:

Those who advocate for more integration by allowing non-lawyer ownership frequently argue this will lower prices and increase access and quality. Those who oppose greater integration worry it will undercut ethical and professional distinctiveness and create new conflicts. The country studies in this article show that while both sets of claims have some merit, they also miss critical components of nonlawyer ownership’s actual impact.

The paper suggests that the following contextual variables are important in the determination of “the actual scale and form that non-lawyer ownership will take”:

  • The nature of the capital and legal services market in the jurisdiction. A smaller market like Australia has seen less non-lawyer ownership than in England where the population is almost three times larger and there is a broader and deeper range of capital investors. The size of the U.S. legal and capital markets has allowed the rise of online legal services despite significant regulatory impediments.
  • The nature of legal services regulation in the jurisdiction. The recent referral fee ban in the UK has led to insurance companies[ii] investing in affiliated personal injury law firms. The Australian contingency fee ban appears to favour larger personal injury firms. The approach to ABS regulation may tend to encourage or discourage ABS formation.
  • The nature of the legal services. Non-lawyer investment appears to be more likely “in lucrative areas of the law that are amenable to economies of scale, where the work can be more easily standardized, and where other costs may be high (such as advertising, administration, or technology)”. Personal injury firms have seen disproportionate investment in Australia and England which may be because “personal injury has historically had large profits, high advertising costs, and a relatively routine and high volume workload of cases that are often handled by nonlawyers and mostly settle”.
  • The nature of the non-lawyer ownership. Ownership can be for-profit or not-for profit. Ownership may be by public listing, private outside investors, worker or consumer ownership, government owned or by a company that provides other goods or services. The nature of the ownership is likely to have an impact on the types of conflicts that develop the stability of the legal services market, professionalism and beneficial effects on access.

The paper observes that the empirical evidence does support the claim that “non-lawyer ownership can, in some circumstances, lead to new innovation in legal services, greater competition, larger economies of scale, and new compensation structures”. However, the paper also suggests that there are reasons to believe that non-lawyer ownership will not lead to significant access gains because (i) those in need of civil legal services often have few resources and, for them, legal aid is the answer, (ii) non-lawyer ownership is likely to be attracted to profitable sectors of the market, (iii) some legal services require the individualized attention of an experienced practitioner who charges high rates and the traditional worker owned partnership model may be the better approach in this context and (iv) there may be reasons other than price causing people not to address civil legal needs.

The paper also observes that, while the opponents of non-lawyer ownership often make claims that are too sweeping, there are genuine professionalism concerns raised by non-lawyer ownership such as (i) the potential for conflicting commercial interests such as insurers investing in personal injury firms, (ii) the potential for regulation to be by-passed such as the avoidance of the UK personal injury referral fee ban by insurer acquisition of legal practices, (iii) the potential for systematization of dubious practices, (iv) the potential for reputational concerns to limit the services provided to unpopular clients or riskier claims.

The paper observes with respect to professionalism challenges that:

… many of the most concerning new professionalism challenges identified in this article did not arise from non-lawyer ownership per se, but rather non-lawyer ownership that involves enterprises that also offer other services, and then only a sub-set of these enterprises. This suggests that jurisdictions adopting non-lawyer ownership should consider banning, or at least more heavily regulating, this type of ownership where the potential for conflict of interest is high, such as insurance companies owning personal injury law firms. When there is merely the potential for conflict or other professionalism concerns regulators should exercise their choice on when and how to intervene in the market. …

The paper notes that there are a number of regulatory policy choices to be made with respect to non-lawyer ownership. The paper encourages the development of more and better data to allow for more plausible claims to be made about the impact of non-lawyer ownership. Significantly, given the difficult judgment calls that are required, the paper calls for decisions to be made by regulators:

drawn from and drawing on a diverse set of opinions, including these two groups, but also consumer organizations, access advocates, other professional groups that deal directly with the public’s legal challenges (like doctors, educators, and accountants), and the academy.

Finally, the paper concludes that:

For policymakers the goal should not be deregulation for its own sake, but rather increasing access to legal services that the public can trust delivered by legal service providers who are part of a larger legal community that sees furthering the public good as a fundamental commitment. Carefully regulated non-lawyer ownership may be a part of achieving this larger goal, but only a part.

Some observations about the paper

In my view, this paper provides important insights for the ABS debate. As I have previously written, there is an unfortunate tendency to see ABS as utopian or dystopian while both the benefits and risks of ABS appear to be less than claimed by the duelists on both sides of the issue. The Robinson paper provides nuanced and thoughtful insight into non-lawyer ownership. It is right to conclude, as Mr, Robinson does, that ABS is no replacement for legal aid. Clearly, there are some legal services for which non-lawyer investment bears little advantage and there are consumers of legal services for whom market-based innovations will be of little import. As the ABS Working Group reported in February 2014, “it would be wrong to suggest that ABSs are a panacea”[iii]. But is wrong to dismiss any proposal on the basis that it is not a silver bullet.

I think that Mr. Robinson rightly observes that, at least at the outset, non-lawyer investment is most likely to focus on particular areas of practice particularly those which are lucrative and where capital can be put to use. Personal injury appears to be one such area. While it is likely right to be sceptical about efforts by existing practitioners to protect lucrative turf, it is also at least questionable whether it would be worth permitting ABS if the practical effect was primarily to partly consolidate the existing personal injury market rather to than expand the legal services that are provided in other areas. We should think hard about the likely impact of ABS in Canada taking into account Mr. Robinson’s insight that different geographic markets and different market sectors likely respond differently to non-lawyer investment.

Finally, Mr. Robinson’s focus on the interests of different investors is important. Mr. Robinson has written cogently about the professionalism concern that insurer-owned personal injury firms create systemic conflicts risks. The same concern can be raised about title insurer, mortgage lender or real estate brokerage ownership of real estate practices. While allowing access to economic and social capital is attractive, it is important to be careful about potentially conflicting interests of the capital providers.

As the title of this article is intended to convey, this “Harvard study” clearly advances this discussion. But it does not end it.

_______________________

[i] John Suh, CEO of Legal Zoom, suggested otherwise on March 6, 2014 at the Harvard Program on the Legal Profession conference entitled Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services.

[ii] and claims management companies

[iii] Para. 119 of the February 2014 LSUC ABS Working Group Report

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Not Both Ways

You Can’t Have It Both Ways

First published on slaw.ca

Either limit the regulatory monopoly or provide for the efficient and effective delivery of legal services for all legal problems

Access to justice and legal services is a central challenge both for society and for the legal profession. The extent to which members of the public are unserved, under-served or inefficiently served is a difficult issue for lawyers being both a challenge to existing practice and an opportunity for innovation.

As suggested in earlier columns, it seems to me that this access question raises central ethical questions. If there are some legal services which are not provided by lawyers[i], how can the current regulatory restrictions be justified for those services. If there are some legal services that can be effectively and properly be provided in other ways, how can current regulatory prohibitions against other means of legal service delivery be justified.

Broadly speaking, there are three potential supply-side policy responses[ii] that arise when one examines unmet legal needs. The first is now of long-standing. It is clear that a fully trained lawyer is not necessarily required for the effective and proper delivery of all legal services. Whether by expansion of paralegal scope of practice or by introducing new types of paraprofessionals, this is one of the tools to consider. The second is the controversial topic of alternative business structures which is essentially about accessing new resources, financial capital as well as business and technological, to develop new ways of providing legal services beyond the small professional consultancy model. The third is not yet well understood. If we cannot find ways to effectively have regulated lawyers, paralegals or alternative providers deliver legal services in some areas, there can be no justification for prohibiting anyone but licensees from servicing those areas.

There are two different area of demand side perspectives to consider. The first is areas of demand that are currently served by lawyers and paralegals. The second is areas of demand that are currently unserved or underserved. The point of this column is to help better understand the second by reference to a recently released study.

In 2013, the UK Legal Services Research Centre released a report entitled Civil Justice in England and Wales. There are many points of interest but I only propose to highlight a few.

The first is that the study found that many “justiciable” problems are not seen by the public as being “legal” problems. To quote the report:

Just over 10 per cent of problems reported through the 2010 CSJPS were characterised by respondents as “legal‟ (despite all problems involving justiciable issues), with 45 per cent being put down to “bad luck‟ or “part of life‟. Almost a third of respondents had no understanding of their rights at the time they first experienced problems, with a further one fifth having only a partial understanding.

Obviously, if someone does not even understand that a justiciable problem is legal in nature then legal assistance will not be sought. This practical observation is reflected in the further observation that:

Respondents sought advice for their problems from a wide range of advisers. Solicitors were the most commonly used source of advice – although Citizens Advice Bureaux, local councils and the police were also frequently used. Use of the Internet for advice seeking was observed to have increased still further to 24 per cent of problems. This continued the upward trend from 19 per cent in wave 1, 16 per cent in the 2006-9 CSJS, and just 4 per cent in the 2001 CSJS. The manner of conclusion of problems was, unsurprisingly, related to problem resolution strategy. For example, those who obtained advice were more likely to see their problem conclude through a formal process.

While it is perhaps reassuring that solicitors were the most common advisors for legal problems, the explosion of using the internet for advise seeking is noteworthy. But the limited use of legal advice is also significant. For those who sought advice in respect of justiciable issues, 25.9% sought advice from a barrister or solicitor. A broad range of other non-legal advisors also provided assistance.

This UK research helps us better understand similar Canadian research. In 2009, the Federal Department of Justice released The Legal Problems of Everyday Life. This report helps us explore the nature of justiciable problems experienced in Canada. The following chart from The Legal Problems of Everyday Life shows both the nature of justiciable problems and the those that cause problems for the public

Problem Type Number of
Problems Overall
Number of Problems
That Made Daily Life
Difficult
Per Cent
Consumer 1,480 639 43.2%
Employment 1,421 978 68.8%
Debt 1,444 721 49.9%
Social Assistance 49 38 77.6%
Disability Pensions 48 43 89.6%
Housing 95 65 68.4%
Immigration 35 29 82.9%
Discrimination 91 64 70.3%
Police Action 103 59 57.3%
Family: Relationship Breakdown 224 208 85.2%
Other Family Law Problems 68 63 92.6%
Wills and Powers of Attorney 330 228 79.0%
Personal Injury 161 136 88.9%
Hospital Treatment
and Release
86 69 84.1%
Threat of Legal Action 51 29 65.9%
Total 5,655 3,369 59.6%

The Legal Problems of Everyday Life (at p. 56) is the source of the information noted in an earlier column that legal assistance is sought for only 11.7% of justiciable problems.

By contrast, 16.5% of those surveyed took no action at all but for a reason, 22.1% sought assistance but not legal assistance and 44.0% handled the problem on their own. Only 5.7% took no action because they felt that the problem wasn’t important enough.

The analysis of the use of non-legal assistance to address justiciable problems is interesting:

Understandably, respondents experiencing problems involving the threat of legal action were least likely to use a non-legal source of assistance, 9.8 per cent …. On the other hand, respondents experiencing a personal injury problem were most likely to consult a non-legal source of assistance, 42.2 per cent of all people experiencing a problem of that type …. Employment, 35.8 per cent …, housing, 33.7 per cent … and problems related to disability benefits, 33.3 per cent … are other areas in which respondents were relatively highly likely to resort to non-legal sources of assistance. It is particularly interesting that 35.8 pre cent … of respondents who experienced a problem related to wills and powers of attorney said they used some form of non-legal assistance. This is a problem area that would seem to be pre-eminently within the legal domain.

It is noteworthy that people with personal injury problems and problems relating to wills and powers of attorney are particularly likely to seek non-legal advice. It is less surprising that employment, housing and disability benefit problems are relatively likely to be addressed with non-legal assistance.

For the 16.5% who did not address their justiciable problem (and did not seek any assistance yet thought their problem important), approximately one-third thought that there was nothing that could be done, approximately 10% were uncertain of their rights and approximately 10% thought that taking action would take too much time.

In 2010, the Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project released its report Listening to Ontarians. This study proceeded on a different basis than the two studies previously mentioned. Rather than examining all justiciable problems (whether or not understood as legal problems), the Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project considered what Ontarians understood to be a “civil legal problem or issue”[iii]. As the report put it:

Our survey indicated that 35 per cent of low and middle-income Ontarians said they had experienced a civil legal problem or issue in the last three years. People mentioned a broad range of problems or issues that caused them or someone in their household to need legal assistance, including problems with a family relationship, wills and powers of attorney, real estate transactions, housing or land, employment, personal injury, money or debt, legal actions, disability-related issues, traffic offences, immigration, and small or personal business issues.

Yet even where a legal problem or issue was recognized as such, approximately 30% did not obtain legal assistance and

One in three respondents among low and middle-class Ontarians said they prefer to resolve their legal needs by themselves with legal advice, but not necessarily with the assistance of a legal professional. Legal advice was sought from a variety of sources, both legal and non-legal. In addition, many civil problems are resolved outside the formal justice system.

What can be taken from all of this is that a very low proportion of justiciable problems are addressed with legal assistance. Non-legal assistance is more common than legal assistance. Justiciable problems are not understood to be legal problems. Even where a problem is understood to be a legal problem, a substantial proportion of the public does not seek legal assistance.

In this context, it is clearly difficult to justify permitting only lawyers (and in Ontario regulated paralegals) to engage “in conduct that involves the application of legal principles and legal judgment with regard to the circumstances or objectives of a person” to quote the Law Society Act (Ontario). If only “legal service providers” are permitted to assist then ways must be found for legal services to be available and desirable. Alternatively, there is no real alternative but to allow others to provide these services.

The choice must ultimately be between limiting, or even ending, the regulatory monopoly and ensuring that services can can actually be delivered within the regulated sphere.

_________________________

[i] and regulated paralegals in Ontario and notaries in British Columbia

[ii] I examine this issue for the purposes of this column without examining two other hard access questions namely (i) the source of payment for legal services (i.e. legal aid or pre-paid legal insurance) and (ii) the extent to which the complexity of the administration of justice is part of the access problem.

[iii] The Quantitative Report by Environics states at p. 15 that in the survey, “respondents were asked to volunteer the kinds of issues and problems that they had experienced for which they had sought legal assistance or for which they thought legal assistance might have been helpful even though they did not avail themselves of such assistance”.

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Utopia, Dystopia and ABS

Utopia, Dystopia and Alternative Business Structures

I’ve spent a lot of time over recent months thinking about alternative business structures and how to think about regulatory liberalization.

Except in very limited circumstances[1], only lawyers[2] can have an ownership interest in a legal practice whether organized as a partnership, a limited partnership or a professional corporation. As a practical matter, only legal and strictly ancillary services can be offered to clients by a legal practice.

Individuals and small businesses are overwhelmingly served by lawyers in sole practice or in small firms. Lawyers sell their time to clients. Time is measured in billable hours. The inexorable arithmetic of the number of hours in the year and the cost of overhead together with the market alternatives of most people who have the capacity to become lawyers results in hourly rates of $150/hour and up.

The current business structure is selling time by the hour in sole and small practice with the financing of the practice by the lawyer out of his or her own resources (or by personal bank borrowings). I think of this as the small professional consultancy structure.

In a recent paper[3], Professors Iacobucci and Trebilcock discussed constraint of law firm business structures using two separate economic concepts. Under the “theory of the firm”, there can be economic advantages for owners (and customers) not to have to go out into the market but instead to obtain related services within the firm. Under the heading “capital structure”, constraining access to capital limits what a business can do because capital is required for business and technological innovation and because owners who can only invest their personal resources are naturally conservative. Few individuals are willing to risk everything on a risky innovative venture.

In another recent paper[4], Professor Ray Worthy Campbell looked at the topic of innovation and scholarly thinking about Disruptive Innovation. The point made is that some innovations are disruptive and that some are sustaining. It is difficult for a successful business to adopt a disruptive innovation. In the 1970s, IBM was Big Blue – the manufacturer of 360 and 370 main frame computers. IBM didn’t and couldn’t bring the personal computer to market. Young entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs came from their garages not from IBM.

For a lawyer, there are sustaining innovations that are easily adopted; like memory typewriters, word processors, fax machines, desktop/laptop computers, smart phones and the like. These innovations sustain the consultancy and are affordable by small consultants. But other innovations are disruptive of the consultancy and require resources and expertise out of the reach of the small consultant.

Professor Campbell discusses three business paradigms; “solution shops”, “value chains” and “value networks”. He says that lawyers, doctors, detectives, engineers operate “solution shop” businesses. To my way of thinking, there are all consultancies with the size of the consultancy being tied to the economic size of the problem seeking a solution.

A “value chain” transforms inputs into products by a process. Think Ford, GM, Chrysler or Google Translate. A “value network” links customers for collective advantage. Think Ebay, an insurance company or Home Hardware. The point is that the competencies required for these different business types are very different. A professional consultancy is very unlikely to evolve into an essentially different type of business.

So why is any of this interesting or possibly useful? One answer is that there are substantial areas in which legal needs are going unfilled because the legal services are simply too expensive according to the potential client. But the only way to reduce price under the small consultancy model is for lawyers to reduce their incomes. In contrast, value chain businesses can develop business and technological processes to deliver services differently. In the 1970s, I worked part time while a student for H&R Block doing tax returns using pen, paper and a calculator[5]. Now I use Quicken downloaded from the internet. Quicken now is cheaper than I was then – and more competent too! While law is more complicated than tax return preparation, technology already exists to address legal problems and the pace of development is only accelerating.

Another answer is that lawyers practicing alone in small consultancies don’t have access to business and legal infrastructures that would make practice better both for the lawyer and for the client. Many lawyers would rather practice law and not have to run a small business as well. Lawyers operating as smalls and soles tend to reinvent the wheel rather than draw on existing knowledge or on the expertise of others.

A third answer is that legal service innovations are occurring but not involving lawyers because lawyers aren’t allowed to combine their legal practices with the innovators[6]. Regulation of lawyers doesn’t stop innovation. It just dictates where innovation won’t happen.

The reformer sees the possibility for clients to be served who are not now being served at all, for current clients to be served better and for lawyers to be innovators rather than to have innovation done to them.

The risk for the optimistic reformer is utopian thinking. It is unlikely that legal practice will be transformed. There is no doubt real value in small consultancies. Lawyers are, by nature, independent and sceptical. Many are probably well suited to practising on their own. And being an employee in a large enterprise isn’t always great. Some employers are better than others. There are advantages and disadvantages. And disruption means that some firms will be winners and some will be losers.[7]

So what is the issue on the other side. There are essentially two issues. The first is protectionism which is rarely, if ever, expressly stated. Lawyers, like everyone else, fear change that could adversely affect them. This fear of adverse consequences of course gets dressed up as something else; sometimes consciously and sometimes not. The deeper and more important issue is independence, both of the profession and of the individual lawyer as professional advisor/advocate.

The pessimistic conservative fears a dystopia; that allowing any alternative business structures will transform the practice of law. Lawyers will no longer be in charge of their practices or of their profession. The rule of law and our free society will be imperilled. Any change could mean total change.

The dystopian naturally does not see sufficient advantage in reform to justify perceived real risk of devastating change. Any change may lead to this dystopia. The dystopian looks in vain for promises of transformation of access to justice and legal services that could justify such a risk but there can be no such promise.

The truth of the matter is that the advantages of ABS liberalization are probably limited and that the risk of significant harm from ABS liberalization is probably remote and capable of mitigation.

Where I end up is that we should try to be more sensible and less visionary in our approaches and in our justifications. It is not necessary to throw caution to the winds in order to permit greater innovation. We should look hard at specific rules and think clearly about whether there are sensible less restrictive alternatives.

In Ontario, the Law Society Act instructs that the Law Society has duties to (i) maintain and advance the cause of justice and the rule of law, (ii) facilitate access to justice for the people of Ontario and (iii) to protect the public interest. All of these duties are in play in the alternative business structure discussion. The reformers see the prospect for greater access to justice (and legal services). The conservatives fear impairment of the cause of justice and the rule of law. Both seek to advance the public interest. Neither is wrongly motivated.

But there is another relevant instruction in the Law Society Act which states as a principle that:

“Standards of learning, professional competence and professional conduct for licensees and restrictions on who may provide particular legal services should be proportionate to the significance of the regulatory objectives sought to be realized.”

I think that there is much wisdom in this pragmatic non-utopian non-dystopian principle. The issue of ABS regulatory liberalization is best addressed pragmatically and incrementally.

In sensible Canadian fashion, we should be able to renovate the kitchen without destroying the house. Throwing all caution to the wind risks real harm. Being unwilling to reform for fear of revolution fails to achieve attainable advantages but also ultimately risks radical change imposed by others.

 


[1] In BC, family members can own shares in a professional corporation. In Québec, regulated professionals can be partners and shareholders in multi-disciplinary corporation. There are a few, very few, Multi-Disciplinary Practices (MDPs).

[2] and regulated paralegals in Ontario

[3] Edward Iacobucci and Michael Trebilcock, An Economic analysis of Alternative Business Structures for the practice of law, Commissioned by the Law Society of Upper Canada for its ABS Symposium held October 4, 2013

[4] Ray Worthy Campbell, Rethinking regulation and innovation in the U.S. legal services market, 9 NYU Journal of Law & Business 1 (2012)

[5] In 1973, the HP Calculator was a new technological innovation. It was a sustaining innovation for consultancies including tax preparation.

[7] Which doesn’t necessarily mean that the people in the disrupted practices won’t find new and perhaps better opportunities.

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