Law Office of the Future – Fight Your Tickets Where You Shop?

Photo: Go Ask Alice

Photo: Go Ask Alice

Allowing Ontarians to purchase legal services where they buy their bananas is inching closer to reality.

A report presented to June Convocation focuses on the next steps for the ABS Working Committee. In February, the group’s first report led some Benchers to warn of a loss of dignity for the profession, if people can buy “bananas and wills” in the same big-box store — one possible business model outcome.

Convocation approved four ABS initiatives in February:

  • Consultation based on four ABS models and a subsequent report
  • Review by the ABS Working Group and the Professional Regulation Committee of Rules from the perspective of risk-based proportionality
  • Consideration of firm and entity regulation
  • Consideration of compliance based regulation

“Alternative business structures” refers to any form of non-traditional business structure, as well as alternative means of delivering legal services. This includes:

  • Alternative ownership structures, such as non-lawyer or non-paralegal investment or firm ownership, including equity financing
  • Firms offering legal services together with other professionals
  • Firms offering an expanded range of products and services, such as “do it yourself” automated legal forms and advanced applications of technology and business processes

In February, the ABS Working Group report caused a stir. Some benchers raised the spectre of “undignified” legal service-provision down the road. Professional Regulation Committee chair Malcolm Mercer suggested that tight regulations can ensure that the public is protected. He noted that jurisdictions that have embraced ABS have reported few problems.

Past Treasurer Conway said recently that he had hoped to see the ABS recommendations put to Convocation before his term ended.

Other common law jurisdictions have brought in alternative funding and operating models for legal services, including the UK and Australia. “Obviously, we need to have a discussion about ABS,” Conway said.

Status Quo ‘Not an Option’

Debate on the motion was split between concerns about an erosion of “professionalism” if legal services are provided “next to bananas” in food markets or in big box stores — countered by warnings that status quo is not an option.

Convocation established the Alternative Business Structures Working Group in September 2012, pursuant to its strategic priorities approved in December 2011.

The February report to Convocation recommended that Law Society Rules and By-Laws regarding fee-sharing, referral fees, direct supervision and ownership restrictions should be reviewed to ensure that they are “proportionate to the risk they seek to mitigate.” If appropriate, proposed revisions are to be referred to the Professional Regulation and Paralegal Standing Committees.

The group also recommended that the Law Society seek a statutory amendment granting it express authority to regulate firms and other entities providing legal services.

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