State of the research

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The legal profession is at the brink of an unprecedented change.

According to a CBA survey of the existing research by bar associations, law firms and thought leaders, there seems to be little dispute over the fact that change is inevitable; or over the causes of the change; or even over the fact that something must be done to respond to the coming changes.

But even with a fairly unprecedented consensus, ideas about how to respond to the transformation are notably lacking. It’s possible, it must be noted, that the lack of a clear path to follow may merely reflect reality: there may be no obvious solutions to offer in the face of what could be described as a mounting existential crisis for law firms.

With its multi-phase Legal Futures Initiative, the first comprehensive study of its kind in this country, the Canadian Bar Association is hoping to move beyond identifying symptoms and hypothesizing about possible cures. It will provide leadership to Canadian legal practitioners by developing a framework for ideas, approaches and tools to help the profession adapt to the change that everyone agrees is upon us.

The first phase of the project, just finished, involved commissioning original research to identify the driving forces behind the changes affecting the profession, and to establish what steps the profession has already taken to respond to them. Part of the work in the first phase was a survey of the existing research on the topic.

What it found was that much of the debate has taken place outside Canada’s borders – with the exception of a 2011 report by the Barreau du Qu├ębec – led by the American Bar Association has led the way on this continent, and by legal professionals and thought leaders in the U.K., Australia and elsewhere.

The CBA research survey also found that the questions being asked – and the conclusions being reached – have not much changed in the past decade, despite the rapidly transforming environment in which the legal profession operates. This reliance on the status quo underlines something Harvard Business School Professor Gary Hamel told the American Bar Association’s Seize the Future conferences more than a decade ago: that the real threat to law firms is not inefficiency, but irrelevancy.

ABA futures conferences in 1997 and 1999 identified a number of trends as affecting both the profession and the role of lawyers; for example, electronic provision of legal services; commoditization; non-lawyers providing legal and quasi-legal services; increasing use of electronic ADR and mediation systems; increased unbundling of legal services; auctions for legal services.

All of these issues and more show up repeatedly in research done in the U.S. and abroad in the intervening years.

Likewise, the same driving factors behind change pop up again and again: technology; globalization; and changing client expectations being foremost among them.

In 2002, a report of the ABA’s Futures committee posed the question: “what are the essential elements of the practice of law that must not be ceded to others?” That question is important if the legal profession is to carve out a niche in a world where non-legal and para-legal practitioners are eagerly seizing the opportunity to take on some of the work traditionally done by lawyers.

That’s because, as the CBA report concluded, when you drill down through all the other motivating factors “the various challenges facing the future of the legal profession can be understood to circle the question of cost.”

The push for things like unbundling; commoditization and standardization; off- and near-shoring of legal work; and computer programs that perform document review, is made possible by technology, but made essential by the need to reduce costs in an unstable global economic environment.

May 6, 2013 |
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