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Breakthrough Innovation: New models for practice of law | Kurt Sandstrom

Tuesday, November 05, 2019 @ 12:45 PM | By Kurt Sandstrom

Kurt Sandstrom %>
Kurt Sandstrom
With the exception of technology, the basic model of the practice of law has not changed in any drastic way over the last 30 years, likely longer. While there are pockets of innovation, for the most part, a client usually seeks out a legal professional according to a set number of already established “problem areas” in which lawyers advertise their assistance: wills, estates, personal injury, family law, etc. However, it is very clear from statistics that the vast majority of people’s legal problems cannot be served through this model. 

Statistics tell a frightening story, usually described as a crisis from the access to justice perspective:

  • Within a three-year period, over 11 million adult Canadians will experience at least one everyday (civil or family justice) legal problem that they consider to be serious or difficult to resolve. 
  • According to a study by Legal Services Society, 22.4 per cent of British Columbians surveyed took no action to solve their legal problems; 5.7 per cent felt the problem was not important enough; 16.7 per cent experienced an access barrier; 22.1 per cent sought assistance from non-legal sources such as unions, government departments, friends and community organizations; and only 11.7 per cent sought legal assistance.
  • Only seven per cent of people use formal court or tribunal processes to solve their problems. And upon entering the formal justice system, few matters make it to a formal trial or adjudication. Only two per cent of civil suits make it to the courts, for example. 
  • This means that 93 per cent of legal problems people consider to be serious or difficult to resolve do not get resolved. The top six areas are: consumer claims, debt issues, employment matters, disputes with neighbours, family disputes and discrimination issues.
  • The societal costs in Canada of unresolved legal problems are very high, resulting in approximately $450 million in additional employment insurance costs, $248 million in additional social assistance costs and $101 million in additional health care costs.

Why do the large majority of Canadians in the justice system decide to not address their problems, and why do approximately 98 per cent of civil disputes that do proceed get settled outside the formal court system? 

Most of the barriers to accessing justice are associated with the costs of resolving legal problems and disputes. For example, estimates for a five-day family trial range from approximately $50,000 to $75,000, depending on the complexity and conflict pertaining to issues such as property division, parenting arrangements and spousal or child support. For most Canadians, this amount is well beyond their reach. 

Just over a year ago, the Law Society of British Columbia posted its consultation paper inviting input on a proposal to enhance access to justice. The Legal Profession Act was amended to permit the law society to create, credential and regulate new categories of non-lawyer legal service providers. By creating additional categories of members permitted to work with people to address their legal problems, it will allow legal firms to employ more non-lawyers to address the large percentage of unmet legal needs people have. 

Instead of looking at the new categories as a threat to the traditional areas lawyers currently focus on, lawyers should begin to look at the opportunities to help people resolve the large number of issues that no one sees a lawyer for, as well as bringing the costs of traditional legal services down so more people can afford to have them addressed. This requires law firms to fundamentally alter their business model, going after a literal gold mine of problems the current practice models miss, because of the cost. 

As an illustration, the Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) in B.C. is an example of the government addressing the problem of unmet legal needs in one important way. Remember, disputes with neighbours is one of the top six unmet legal problems identified by Canadians. Prior to the CRT, people with strata disputes had no meaningful way to have them resolved as an application had to be made in the B.C. Supreme Court which was expensive and time consuming. The creation of the CRT permitted these issues to go a more user-friendly, less costly, route. While some criticized government’s attempt to limit lawyers in the process, this was done to ensure the cost would be kept down for people needing their problems resolved expediently. 

Paul Rulkens, in a TEDx Talk titled Why the Majority is Always Wrong, says that breakthrough innovation and extraordinary results come when people fundamentally challenge the industry norms in their field.   

A few examples are cited for such breakthrough innovation businesses, such as IKEA, but since that TEDx Talk, even more of these startup businesses are challenging industry giants. Ride hailing was a breakthrough innovation in the taxi industry, and Tesla’s business model of not having dealerships, physical service garages (not to mention gasoline!) is another such example. 

Lawyers need to put down their previous conceptions of industry standards for law firms and look for opportunities for breakthrough innovation. Instead of alternate legal service providers looking like a threat to the legal profession, as some see it, the Law Society of B.C., and other law societies in other jurisdictions, should be applauded for providing such an opportunity. 

Who will be the Uber of law firms in 10 years, having capitalized on this opportunity? As a government lawyer doing my best to address serious access barriers, it’s a gauntlet I’m happy to throw down. 

Kurt Sandstrom has been the assistant deputy minister of Justice Services Branch, with the B.C. Ministry of the Attorney General, since June 2016. He also teaches law, public policy and dispute resolution at the University of Victoria. He lives and works on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples, now known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.

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