Big Issues for Small Town Law

Bryce Gardner 

Discussions related to access to justice often discuss the unaffordability of lawyers to a regular person,  or the over-complexity of the law to the non-legal mind. These issues become irrelevant though when there simply are not any legal resources available in your area, a problem all too common in today’s small town Canada.

Nationally, only 8.7% of new lawyers (having less than five years of experience) practice in a rural setting. A survey of the Law Society of British Columbia found that most students would leave the province before considering practicing in a rural area. [1] Of those lawyers who do work in small towns, most are nearing the age of retirement. In B.C. the typical age of a lawyer is about 48, but that can skew to upwards of 52 in smaller communities. In Castlegar, B.C. it’s 65. [2] This makes sense. Most law students come from the city, and why would they ever want to leave the bars, malls and restaurants of the big city to live in a town that only has two traffic lights and the only night club is the 24/7 McDonald’s lobby?

On top the lifestyle issues, there are many obstacles that present themselves to a future small town lawyer. Small town law firms do not have nearly as many resources to recruit and hire potential successors compared to their bigger counterparts. Small town lawyers often have to provide much more general advice on a broad range of topics, something that is hard to do in a legal world where people are encouraged to specialize. The biggest obstacle is the financial aspect. Small town firms often have to start from the ground up and law schools do not teach much in terms of practical business operations. Small town lawyers often earn less than a Vancouver or Toronto lawyer but work fewer hours. As with any obstacle, however, all that is needed to overcome these issues is some creative thinking and innovation.

The Canadian Bar Association’s Rural Education and Access to Lawyers Program (REAL) has already tried to fulfill some of the demand for small town lawyers across BC. By helping find summer positions and providing funding, this program helps to give law students a taste of small town law with the hope that they will stay.  In 2010, the Law Society of Manitoba introduced a program to offer a limited number of law students the opportunity to have their student debt forgiven (up to $25,000 per year of tuition and living expenses) if they work in an underrepresented community. [3] These programs do not do enough though, as they often only entice law students who already came from small towns. Enticing those born and raised in the city is much harder.

If the Canadian Bar Association wants to get more lawyers in small towns, I recommend they should try the following:

1)  Use lessons learned from this pandemic about working remotely. So many people have been working from home and so many people will not want to return to their commute once things return to the (new) normal. Many of the small town lawyers I have met work out of home offices and never had a commute to begin with. Additionally, many lawyers have been forced to conduct research online rather than relying on a physical library. Let people know that if they like working from home it is all the more possible as a small town lawyer.

2) Establish a legal incubator within relevant communities that would provide legal and business training to articling students and new lawyers while at the same time providing affordable and accessible legal services to people in rural and remote communities. [4]

3) Better educate law students about the benefits of small town lawyer life, such as more affordable housing and lower living costs, fewer working hours (on average) and generally more meaningful work right out of law school (rural lawyers often have complete control over an entire case).

4) Provide law students with shorter programs (such as one week) to job shadow rural lawyers and see what life is like, without having to commit several months over a summer.

Perhaps I have now convinced you to give small town law a try (though statistically, probably not).  Like any access to justice problem all we can do is think about it and try to figure out solutions. If anyone wants to discuss further I’ll be at McDonald’s tonight having a drink.

Sources:

[1] Tonya Lambert, “Promoting the Practice of Law in Rural, Regional & Remote Communities” (January 7, 2020), online (blog): Law Now <https://www.lawnow.org/promoting-the-practice-of-law-in-rural-regional-remote-communities/>. 

[2] Jim Middlemiss, “Small communities struggle to pry lawyers from Canada’s big cities, despite promise of jobs”, National Post  (Oct 1, 2013) <https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/small-communities-struggle-to-pry-lawyers-from-canadas-big-cities-despite-promise-of-jobs>.

[3] Lambert, supra note 1.

[4] Ibid.

 

 

Changing the Foundation for Innovation, Collaboration and Creativity in Law

Innovation, collaboration, and creativity are characteristics that are becoming a focal point of the current demands of those hiring legal counsel. Gone are the times of hiring a lawyer for one specific task with one specific requirement, and ushered in are the times of multi-faceted approaches to solving problems. It seems that because the legal world is starting to recognize that the lawyers being pumped out of law schools with a cookie cutter education perhaps isn’t the best way to stimulate innovation in the field, programs are being designed to help lawyers with their “soft skills”. While these programs are well-intentioned and certainly useful to those who have left law school behind decades before current, it simply doesn’t address the problem at a foundational level. The level I’m referring to is the ground level of fresh candidates being accepted into law school as we speak. Canada’s  top-tier law schools are not known for their holistic hiring process, and in fact usually require simply two documents upon application: (1) undergraduate transcripts, and (2) LSAT score. To me, requiring only these two items is inviting your new class of soon-to-be lawyers to set innovative thinking and real-world acquired soft skills aside for a spotlight focus on the robotic functioning of a fundamentally flawed grading system. If we want to fix what will soon be a profession-wide problem of lawyers who are being asked to perform in ways they’ve never been asked to before, the way to do so isn’t to address the problem years into a lawyers professional career, but rather at ground zero before they’ve learned the outdated and entrenched ways to approach the practice of law.

Upon discovering that perhaps law school was something I would like to pursue, I began the arduous process of looking into the requirements each individual school listed for their applicants. Not only did I leave the process disheartened as a student (I am the first to admit that working during my undergraduate degree did not fare ostentatiously well for my grades), I left it disheartened as a human being (dramatic yes, but also true). So many of the institutions I looked into did not have any kind of holistic framework in place to make sure that the applicants they were admitting were well-rounded in both academic pursuits and real-world experience. To me this screamed: “We want you! BUT with the caveat of it being the “you” only in relation to your grades and LSAT score.” Creating an environment comprised of academic superstars that were only admitted on the premise that their grades were high, and their LSAT score higher has created this strange utopian environment of legalese using human-like robots who read textbooks for sustenance and oil their joints with their regurgitated and unhelpful word-for-word caselaw.

That being said, there are always exceptions to the rule. There are certainly those who have been able to work, live lives, and achieve outstanding grades. In consequence, these people will have some of those soft skills that innovation, creativity and collaboration in a professional setting require. However, I do not think it wrong to say that most of those being accepted to the top tier law schools whom only weigh grades and LSAT scores are those students privileged enough to have been able to focus on school and only school in their undergraduate degrees. For some reason, this seems to be a fundamental flaw in our legal education system that is rarely discussed.

To tie this together, it is my extremely humble and overly simple second-year opinion that if we indeed want to encourage innovation, collaboration, and creativity in our legal profession, then why not try to fix the foundation that it was built on.  True innovation, collaboration and creativity blossoms from experience and practice in the real world with a variety of personal interactions. Why not include holistic evaluations country-wide in our law school applications to ensure that students coming in have a solid understanding of what personable communication is like and how to do it? Why are we encouraging, as institutions, students to only value grades and numbers that do not accurately translate to the legal skills required in the actual practice of law?

I am not trying to discount the importance of reading the material and being able to apply the knowledge. Reading comprehension and application is important and shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially in a profession where reading is a heavy component of the work. Showing your future law school that you are able to retain information at the undergraduate level is also an important indicator of being able to retain information at the law school level. However, this can be shown just as sufficiently through grades that live in the 80 percent range in tandem with outside-of-school work and experience, as it would be shown through grades in the upper 90 percentages with only an academic life focus. At the end of the day, the law profession is a service industry, and it’s no wonder clients are asking for more innovative and creative lawyers than the professionals they’re currently receiving. Many of the lawyers we’ve seen in this practice before us lack major service industry skills because of their purely academic focus, and I too as a client would want more soft skills present in my counsel.

In summation, I believe the key to truly endorsing innovation, creativity, and collaboration is changing the things that we as students are taught to value (i.e., grades). Institutions need to foster and appreciate adaptable thinking, people skills and real world experience. Adopting this mindset early would eliminate the need for lawyers to later on take courses to essentially learn how to talk to human beings on a human being level. This is arguably a skill we should all value as residents of this planet, instead of treating it like an abnormal characteristic that isn’t found abundantly in the regular functioning of society. I would argue even, that offering these courses as learning tools is simply affirming to lawyers and students that all the skills they need to know come from a classroom. These skills are easily achievable through interactions in the world by simply stepping outside of your front door and into an assortment of diverse social situations. I agree that the three aforementioned characteristics of collaboration, creativity, and innovation are necessities for those working in this current legal world, and are not consistently present at this time. My agreement on this issue also concludes that I acknowledge there is a problem that has not been properly addressed, managed, or cared about. Hopefully as I continue my journey through law school and then (hopefully, COVID-19 willing) into the practice of law itself I will see the institutional focus on grades and LSAT scores diminish in lieu of a focus on holistic application requirements. It is a hopeful outlook, but one I think is certainly achievable. The law itself is known to be an incredibly complex grey area for interpretation, so why are we making our recruiting requirements and expectations so black and white?

God Save the Legal System

Dave Barroqueiro
Constructor of Legal Apps and Lover of the Digital Age
https://twitter.com/rawklawbster

In June 1977, to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, The Sex Pistols released “God Save the Queen”, their second of only two singles. It was a raucous, rebellious condemnation of the rigid, class-based politics of what was at the time a seemingly immovable British culture, confined by tradition and an overblown sense of propriety. Whether intended or not, it was taken on as the anthem of the disillusioned; Johnny Rotten became their poster boy.

To call the release of “God Save the Queen” a disruptive event does not do it adequate service. The Pistols faced (actual) assaults and insults from disgusted and indignant passers-by on the street. The song was banned by the BBC. The Pistols were dropped by two record labels for being simply “too much trouble”. The machinery of government, culture and business conspired against them at every turn. Charts wouldn’t even mention the name of the song or the band by name.

And yet, the single sold by the boatload.
(Despite outselling Rod Stewart by a yard, conspicuously, the single charted at #2)

This wasn’t an accident. The song was representative of the long-bubbling frustrations of a subculture ignored and actively repressed by the hegemonic powers of the day. Love it or hate it, this song, and the punk movement as a whole, changed the game. Undeniably, rock n’ roll would never be the same again. British culture, in a many ways, would never be the same again. The cat was out of the bag, and those who gripped tightly to the “old ways” found themselves becoming increasingly irrelevant in the new environment.

The digital age is the disruption. The legal system is the confining culture, primed for its own revolution.

It is no secret that the legal profession is careful, quiet, and risk-averse. It is no secret that the legal profession in Canada is bound up in the rigid, proper culture – the pomp and circumstance – inherited from the 19th century upper-middle-class British tradition. It is no secret that the gatekeepers of the legal profession resist technological innovation because those gatekeepers themselves profit immensely from their own inefficiencies under the billable hours paradigm. They do not wish for the legal profession to change because it is to their personal benefit that it does not.

Other industries — banking, transportation, healthcare, and myriad others — have all undergone their own quiet revolutions in the face of the changes brought on by the digital age. They have embraced the tremendous decision-making power and efficiency that the information revolution has brought along with it. The legal industry, however, resists it. Why?

“If it ain’t broke…”

Legal technology bloggers frequently bring up the notion that the legal profession is averse to technological innovation because of the structure of the profession and the law business itself.

Law firms themselves are not “open” to external investment in the way that businesses in other industries are. In law firms, because lawyers do the legal work, and profits are not shared with non-lawyers, this closes them to investment (and alternative ideas) from the outside. The firm model, in itself, is a “bubble”. There are many who seek to keep this bubble from popping for any number of reasons: investment in tech costs money; the “billable hours” paradigm makes (and keeps) them wealthy; the “exclusivity” of legal help keeps it expensive and elusive; it’s the way things have always been done; lawyering is too “personal” of a business; etc., etc.

This is the death grip of the “old ways”. Decentralization has already begun, and new tools emerge on a daily basis that are re-forming the legal landscape. The grip is loosening. Independent, creative, and agile lawyers will do well. More people will be able to access justice than ever before. Big firms will continue to exist, surely, but their relevance will undoubtedly diminish. Good riddance.

Those with the mind to serving clients as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible will reach more people. As clients are becoming more tech-savvy, their expectations are changing. Consumers want agility; they want speedthey want the experience of seeking legal help to be as painless and affordable as possible.

That “BIG” disruptive event…

Disruption by way of innovation happens everywhere you look: in culture, in business, in human relations… everywhere. It is inevitable. As it relates to the legal profession, this is a good thing – it opens the doors to innovators, rewards incumbents who look ahead, and ruthlessly punishes those who don’t (the scythe is swift and without remorse).

It’s difficult to say if the legal profession will face the kind of “shockwave” the music industry did with the introduction of iTunes (RIP HMV), or rock n’ roll did with the introduction of punk rock into the public consciousness. Rest assured, however, that the technological revolution in the legal profession has begun with companies like RocketLawyer, or via online tribunals, such as the Civil Resolutions Tribunal in British Columbia, or by way of cloud-based practice management like Clio. No one innovation, on its own, has blown up the legal profession, but, in aggregate, they are democratizing access to the law and enabling practitioners to do and be more of what their clients need. Power is being wrested away from the gatekeepers. This must — and will — continue. The machinery is large, their pockets are deep, their influence is wide-reaching, and the culture is rigid.

And yet, the wave will swallow them all.

But for now… God Save the Legal System. We mean it, man…

Full Disclosure

Dave Barroqueiro,
Constructor of Legal Apps and Lover of the Digital Age

Full Disclosure: I’m not a blogger. Maybe I should be.

To blog isn’t really something I typically would do. I was never really one to keep a journal. I was never really one to comment too much in message boards, or on Facebook, or Twitter, or anything of the like. Thinking about it now, for someone who spends as much time behind a computer screen as I do, and as actively interested as I am in issues related to legal technology, digital media, intellectual property, and so on, I wouldn’t ever really say that I have much of a “web presence,” per se. Though woefully behind the curve, the importance of blogging is beginning to dawn on me, particularly given my decision to pursue a career in law — a profession that depends as much as it does on name recognition. The areas of law I’m interested in — IP, technology, legal innovation — only reinforce this further. It’s the new way of the world; time to get on the horse. One has to start somewhere… may as well be here.

Full Disclosure: I’m a bit of a computer nerd. Always have been. Always will be.

It may be difficult to believe — rugged rock n’ roll exterior and all — but I’m a pretty big computer nerd. Like, Revenge of the Nerds kind of nerd. From the time I received my first computer at age five (they didn’t come with a mouse then), there has always been something about computers that fascinated me. The very thought that this “magic box” had limitless potential to do anything my imagination could conjure up has been a driving force in my life — from dismantling and rebuilding the family computer as a child (it didn’t go over well – maybe should have asked permission), writing programs in BASIC as a nine year old, building websites and learning graphic design as a teenager (and later, as a component of my job), and now, combining my interests in the law and technology by developing a legal applications. Many don’t get a thrill out of the minutiae and tedium. I get lost in it.

Full Disclosure: I’m a bit of a dreamer.

really like making things. Rock n’ roll songs, websites, clay sculptures, legal apps… you name it. There’s a sort-of indescribable joy about taking an idea in your head, putting it into action, and refining it to death until it becomes something tangible. It never really ever ends up manifesting itself as it did when you had originally conjured it, and that’s okay. The real fun is in the journey. As I work away at my own little legal expert system — Mobile Rights Made Easy — I’m not too worried that it isn’t exactly as I’d imagined it when we began to undertake the development of the app. While the app does less than we’d originally conceived, it does it better than I’d ever imagined. Here’s to the journey.

Full Disclosure: I have a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak.

I’m a punk rocker to the very core; an anti-traditionalist, a rogue — especially when it comes to law. I’ve never been one to buy in to the idea that, because everyone else is doing something a certain way, that it’s the right way or the best way to do it. I really hate being told what (and how) to think. It’s on this point that I butt heads with my chosen profession. As we all know, law is just about as culturally conservative and slow-moving as the professions get. We’re not supposed to like disruption. We’re not supposed to like radical change. But… you know what?do like those things — they push and drive us to do more… to be better than we have been. The proliferation of disruptive technologies into the practice of law has already begun. As resistant as the profession has been to technological innovation and change, the cracks in the dam have begun to reveal themselves, and it is only a matter of time before the levees break. We are at an impasse: ride the wave, or be drowned by it. I plan to hang-ten. Cowabunga.

The Welcome Post

By Katie Sykes

Welcome to the Law and Innovation Blog!

This space is about law students learning the legal skills of the twentieth century: legal knowledge engineering, project management, legal design

A group of students at Thompson Rivers University Faculty of Law is collaborating with Neota Logic and several non-profit organizations to design and build legal apps that enhance access to justice.  At the same time, students at both TRU and University of Ottawa Faculty of Law are working with the British Columbia Ministry of Justice on knowledge engineering new areas of law for the Civil Resolution Tribunal Solution Explorer.

All of these pioneering law students are gaining important, cutting-edge skills that are very much in demand in today’s legal market.  But these learning experiences not just about the new.  The students are also developing and practicing the traditional professional skills of lawyers. They’re learning to understand and solve client problems.  They have to communicate clearly, professionally, and accessibly.  They have to be organized – no coasting till the last week and then banging out a final paper over a few all-nighters. They have to collaborate with professionals from other fields, including IT professionals at Neota and the MoJ. 

Perhaps most importantly, these innovative educational experiences call on our students to put the client at the centre of what they are doing. On the vital importance of training new lawyers to be client-centred professionals, see Professor Julie Macfarlane’s excellent and thought-provoking recent blog posts on the deficiencies of legal education.

This journey will be exciting and challenging.  The blog is here for the students to share their reflections, ideas and observations along the way.  I’m looking forward to some great posts and comments.  Please join the conversation!