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Legal industry facing sea change | Joan Rataic-Lang

Tuesday, April 07, 2020 @ 11:55 AM | By Joan Rataic-Lang

Joan Rataic-Lang %>
Joan Rataic-Lang
When I started working as the librarian at Aird & Berlis in 1988 there were days I didn’t even turn on the computer to do a QL search.  Administrative assistants were still using typewriters and I kept track of invoices in a paper ledger. Fast forward to today: I’m sitting at home during a pandemic, running an association and a library from a laptop. Things have changed, and they have stayed the same. 

Fundamentally the purpose of a library (often called information centre, resource centre, or media centre) has not changed, how the work is done has. I think this latest crisis has forced a true paradigm shift. Estates lawyers are figuring out how to get wills signed when they can’t get into the seniors’ homes; real estate lawyers are struggling with house closings while physical distancing and non-essential services orders are in place; family lawyers have clients stuck in stasis, unable to move forward with necessary changes in living arrangements; and, employment lawyers are guiding their clients through the implications of new federal/provincial stimulus packages, for which new announcements happen almost every day.

Meanwhile, concerns for the timely course of justice require courts to consider the ethics of jury panels: a juror who appears healthy at the beginning of a trial could end up infecting everyone. I am not a lawyer but as the executive director of the Toronto Lawyers Association (TLA), these issues are directly affecting our members and so they concern me.

The recession of 2008 saw law firms change their ways. In the U.S. things were more dramatic, with mass firings of lawyers, not just support staff, occurring, and where firms, storied and boutique alike, disintegrated under the pressure. In Canada budgets were slashed, but for the most part, firms survived intact.

In my case, as the library director at a large Bay Street firm, I had to reassess everything: not just what we bought, but how we did our work, who did it and ultimately, why we did what we did. I was “lucky,” a couple of circumstances allowed me some breathing room: most of the library subscriptions were annual commitments, which gave me time to properly consider spending alternatives and make fact-based decisions. Where staff layoffs happened quickly in other departments, that year allowed me to do a proper analysis, have vital discussions. During that time staff attrition meant I didn’t have to fire anyone.

What will the impact of COVID-19 be? A recession undoubtedly, possibly depression? Will that mean the same cuts as before, or will it be deeper? In the case of the TLA library, we can’t cut any more. Over the last 10 years the cost of library resources has doubled, while funding for the courthouse library has increased about one per cent annually. The association uses membership dues and revenue from education programs to run the library. If we cut anything else, we will not be able to provide legitimate legal reference and research services. That is bound to keep me up at nights.

It’s just a little more than 10 years since the last recession, and technology has progressed dramatically. I think this #AgeofSelfIsolation will be the beginning of a sea change.

In 2007 GoTo Meeting was our tool of choice for virtual meetings. WebEx has become a generic term in our vocabulary, just like Kleenex. But strange days mean new products can quickly leapfrog over standards! Zoom’s popularity has skyrocketed since we have been forced to stay at home in a worldwide effort to “plank the curve.”

How will such products change our lives? I am an extrovert, and it terrifies me to think that all “social interaction” will be happening virtually. Will my enthusiasm and interest come across as genuine when viewed through a camera on a laptop? Will I see the twinkle in someone’s eye when a joke is told, and will that slight smile on the face of a new acquaintance be noticeable on the screen? I don’t know, but I guess I will be forced to find out.

Joan Rataic-Lang is executive director and library director of the Toronto Lawyers Association.

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