By Craig Zawada, Q.C.
President, Law Society of Saskatchewan
Until this year, I had never been to the American Bar Association’s Techshow, which is held annually in Chicago. Tim Brown, our Executive Director, suggested we attend to get an understanding of what we might be regulating in the future. He did not have to twist my arm too hard, but even if you are not a computer enthusiast, I recommend you take the opportunity if you ever get a chance. There is a remarkable amount of innovation occurring in the legal community.
I came away with several thoughts about technology for lawyers, and how we are going to be affected. Remember this is the American Bar Association, so it is U.S.-centric. This extends into technology and software, where a large number of the products are either not suitable for Canada, or not available. For example, there are many more legal accounting packages available to American lawyers than in our country. If the software cannot handle GST or Canadian payroll rules, however, it is of little use here.
The relative size of the markets is also a big differentiator. The usual metric for Canada and the U.S. is 10:1, the ratio of their population to ours. Lawyers roughly approximate that – with about 1.3 million attorneys in the U.S. compared to 120,000 lawyers in Canada. That may seem like a lot of Canadian lawyers, but it is 50,000 fewer than just California. However, when you further consider that not all our lawyers are in private practice, and that they are dispersed among 14 Canadian governing bodies with different rules, our lawyers have far fewer potential customers. Many products we saw in Chicago will never be available in Canada.
Size is also an issue within our country. Saskatchewan membership is about 4% of Ontario’s. That is not all a downside since it means we can be nimbler and less governed by tradition than other, larger regulators. But we need to do it on our own terms, for our own reasons, and not because we think the big regulators will follow.
All of that is interesting, but one of the big takeaways from Chicago, for me at least, was that the Law Society as a regulator can and should play a much bigger role in helping our members with technology. One of the ways we can make a difference is to help manage the transition of our members through the biggest technological changes our profession has ever seen.
Here’s an example. One of the vendors in Chicago was promoting their app where clients could locate and then talk about their issue with a lawyer over their smartphone. Big deal, I said, it sounds like Skype or Facetime. It turns out there was more, such as the sharing of documents, so it really started looking like a virtual law firm where lawyers were united by electronic tools instead of physical offices.
That got me thinking. As a Law Society in a large, lightly-populated province, we often struggle with things like rural practitioners who are far-flung and disconnected, clients who have issues finding and accessing lawyers, and most importantly, a membership which is looking for help and guidance in adapting to technological innovation. We no longer have a lawyer referral service, but what if we provided something like a province-wide referral network, accessible by anyone through their smartphone, where potential clients could identify lawyers by practice area, and then talk to them over video? Whether a lawyer participated or not would be up to them, and we would not be preferring any lawyer over others, but the Law Society would provide the infrastructure for this to happen. Given our small population, it is unlikely anyone would or could offer that service other than the Law Society.
That is only one example, but there are countless other things we could be doing to help our membership get comfortable with the best new technology, and to fundamentally change the delivery model of law to recognize looming changes. I say it often: the Law Society has traditionally been good at telling lawyers what they cannot do, but not very good at what they can or should do. We need to change a lot of things, such as how we evaluate and reward competence, but it is something that all of the issues we discuss – be it access, education, discipline and others – depend on.
One of our recent efforts has been to more actively listen to our stakeholders and benefit from their ideas. There are plenty of perspectives and different thoughts. Unanimity may be impossible, but consensus is achievable. I want to continue to talk to as many of you as possible to hear your views and ideas. The real power will be combining what we learn at the Law Society with the other things you see and think. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” It will remain tough, but amassing all the information and ideas we can will make prediction easier.