The market for legal services in Canada is changing, in ways that not every lawyer will like and that no one in the legal profession can control.
Global shifts in legal service regulation, the rise of new competition for our clients’ business, and extraordinary advances in technology are all placing enormous pressure on lawyers. What’s more, this unprecedented and potent combination of forces is taking place in the shadow of great economic turmoil and growing public impatience with our access to justice failures. If you’ve ever wondered what a “perfect storm” of change might look like in the law, this is it.
It’s time for lawyers to look past the narrow confines of “the legal profession” and to see the larger, multi-faceted “legal market” of needs and opportunities. And it’s time we fully understood some crystallizing truths about legal service delivery in this new market. Here are nine for your consideration.
1. Lawyers will no longer be the sole providers of legal services. Para-professionals, accounting firms, legal document websites, and advanced legal technologies will each take a growing share of the legal market in the coming years. No law society can stop this, and some are already amending their rules to adapt to it. You can hate it and you can fight it if you like, but our monopoly is effectively over and it’s not coming back.
2. Lawyers will ultimately benefit from a multi-provider market. In truth, we have been punching below our weight for some time now, devoting our immense talents to tasks that are essentially clerical, transactional or procedural in nature. Others will take that work from us — and in the long run, we’ll thank them, because we will be freed to apply our highest and deepest skills to more important and valuable needs and opportunities.
3. Lawyers will not become extinct in my lifetime or yours. Paralegals, accountants, and legal technology developers all agree that they are complements to, not replacements for, lawyers. The legal market needs the expertise, ethics, and humanity that the legal profession provides. So long as we are prepared and qualified to deploy those features in service of client needs and public interests, consistently, then our future is assured.
4. Lawyers will learn to collaborate more than compete. If we try to stifle competitors and innovations from outside the profession, we will be seen as eliminating client choice to protect our turf, and we will suffer accordingly. The lawyers who survive and succeed will be those who work alongside, not against, complementary performers and powerful machines — and ultimately, who collaborate with other lawyers in the service of client value.
5. Lawyers will learn to value and promote the client experience. The key to meaningful reform of legal service delivery lies in improving the experience of legal service buyers. New market players have shown us the way, by prioritizing accessibility, affordability, convenience, and ease of use in their product design and service delivery. Lawyers and law firms who follow suit will thrive. Those who do not will eventually disappear.
6. Lawyers will start to care about access to justice. Actually, many lawyers do care about access, deeply. But the legal profession, as a whole, does not. Multiple studies in different countries show lawyers serve only about 15% of all legal needs and opportunities and block anyone else from meeting the rest. We will begin to address that by allowing new legal service providers into the market to meet those needs. We will completely address it when we start serving these needs ourselves.
7. Lawyers will become efficient and effective businesspeople. A competitive market will force down lawyers’ fees, requiring lawyers to reduce our costs of doing business. We will be obliged to streamline and improve our internal processes, which will allow us both to enhance the quality of our work and to offer predictable or fixed prices to our clients in the confident knowledge that we will ultimately turn a profit. We will come to see how law is both a profession and a business.
8. Lawyers will not reach this promised land quickly or easily. There’s a lot of turmoil and pain for the legal profession ahead, and there’s no point denying it. Market upheaval is hardest on the incumbents, and harder still when the incumbents are risk-averse, resistant to change, and poorly trained in business fundamentals. Look for more new lawyers without jobs, more senior lawyers without successors, and more law firms to shrink or even shut down.
9. Lawyers will ultimately be better positioned than ever before. As perfect a storm as this might prove to be, it is also true that every storm eventually gives way to sunshine. Whatever befalls inpidual lawyers, the legal profession will emerge from this process stronger and more formidable than ever. We will have higher skills, better processes, newer offerings, and a keener ability to identify and deliver value to our clients. That’s the reward awaiting those who can make the transition.
Legal service delivery is shifting from a reactive, inefficient, single-channel routine to a dynamic, client-centric, multi-provider opportunity. Better tools are emerging, healthy competition is flourishing, and a larger, deeper and more lucrative market is waiting, poised to exploit and enjoy a cavalcade of new options. Lawyers can and should be first in line to meet those needs and fulfill those opportunities. The way forward is becoming clear. It only remains for us to take it.
Jordan Furlong is an Ottawa-based legal market analyst and cnonslutant with Edge International who has addressed dozens of audiences worldwide on the new legal market. He writes atlaw21.ca.