Category: Legal Futures

Carolyn Grogan to join Round Table Law as Virtual Articling Student

Carolyn Grogan to join Round Table Law as Virtual Articling Student

Photo of Carolyn GroganI’m very pleased to announce that Round Table Law will be expanding its ranks on April 4.  Carolyn Grogan has agreed to join as an Articling Student.

I think that must make Carolyn the first articling student at a virtual law firm in the history of Alberta. If she’s not the first, she would have to be in the first few. Improvements in technology and recent changes to the requirements placed on an articling program by the Law Society of Alberta mean it is very unlikely that this sort of arrangement could have existed before.

What makes being a virtual articling student different?

Carolyn will be operating primarily out of her own home, but like me can operate anywhere she has an internet connection. We will be in constant contact and collaboration, but through the cloud, not in person.  She will have complete access to all of Round Table Law’s resources, because Round Table Law is 100% cloud based.

But more than just being virtual, Carolyn’s articles will be outside of the usual in another way.

Round Table Law exists to prove and share the experience of working as a solo practitioner in a low overhead, low volume, technology centred practice of law. The idea is to provide greater access to the practice of law for Alberta lawyers, and in turn provide greater access to justice for Albertans.

Staying true to that mission means that Carolyn’s articles will not be geared toward just learning to be a lawyer at Round Table Law. They will be geared toward learning to be an independent lawyer, with the skills, confidence, knowledge, and support to go it alone.  Then, and only then, can I feel good about trying to convince her to stay.

Having never acted as a principal to an articling student before, it will be a very new experience for both of us, and there will be challenges along the way. But I look forward to learning with Carolyn over the term of her articles, and to witnessing the contribution she makes to our profession in the future.

Carolyn wants to use her legal education to help people struggling with family law issues. If you or someone you know needs that sort of help, send them her way.

Welcome to the Round Table, Carolyn.

Everything Could Change

Everything Could Change

The CBA National magazine has a great article on issues in legal education, which I recommend you read.  It is a wonderful overview of some of the challenges and the solutions being proposed to meet them.

The article asks a very important question, who does legal education serve, and in whose interests should the changes in legal education be designed?

It answers the question succinctly: legal education has to serve all of three masters: students, the profession, and the public interest.  That’s fair enough for as far as it goes.  But there is a linkage that I’d like to draw out, that I don’t think is discussed enough.

How is teaching law students modern technology of advantage to the students? They are better able to compete in an environment that will increasingly focus on efficiency. How is teaching law students modern technology of advantage to the profession? It will provide the profession not only with the expertise it needs to run the systems that are coming, but the leadership that it needs to implement those systems. Change will come from the new lawyers who already know how the systems are better.  And how does it serve the public interest? Well, a more efficient provision of legal services is in the interest of the public.  It has the potential to reduce costs and improve access.

But that’s not all.  There’s a very important part missing from that discussion.

I truly believe teaching law students modern technology will completely restructure the practice of law.  I think it will improve gender equity in the practice of law.  I think it will improve the working conditions of junior associates.   I think that will reduce the incidence of drug and alcohol abuse and metal illness among lawyers, including the terrible rates of suicide. I think it will change the average size of firms.  I think it will significantly increase the availability of legal services to the public, with knock on effects on price that go beyond efficiency. I think it will also result in a more ethical profession.

How?

OK. Right now you get out of law school and you know some of the law. You do not, as the article states, know how to manage a file, much less run a law firm. You don’t typically get courses on trust accounting, regulatory obligations on firms, practice management, marketing, etc. You also do not get an education in the most recent technologies available to accomplish those things.

You get out of law school, and you need to article, so you look for a position with a firm large enough and well capitalized enough to be able to absorb the risks associated with hiring an articling student who may or may not stay on as an associate long enough for the firm to see a profit from their participation.  If you are lucky enough, you get one of those positions, and you spend a year learning how to work on the lowest rung of that firm. Some of those skills are transferable to other firms, some aren’t.  But you still don’t know anything about how to run a law firm. You are starting to learn things about how to manage a client file, but the things that you are learning are lowest-rung things.  Your experience is most valuable to the firm you are with.

The pyramidal structure of typical law firms means that your employer is motivated to get as much work out of you as possible, so billable hours requirements are very high.  The pyramidal structure of typical law firms also means that you are in constant competition with others in your cohort for a limited number of positions on the next rung. You are therefore motivated to meet and exceed the firm’s expectations, which can only be done by spending more time.

Let’s say you are a woman, and after a few years you want to start a family.  Still, today, a great many of our junior lawyers, disproportionately women, decide that this is not possible while also meeting the empoyer’s expectations, and so they leave the private practice of law, looking for positions in-house, with government, or outside the practice of law entirely.  This is not anecdotal. The equity ombudsperson for the Law Society of Alberta said years ago the attrition rate for women from private practice was around 50% in 5 years.

Sole practice or going off on your own with a few friends is an option, but you would need to have the capital to pay for a lease, hire staff, pay tens of thousands of dollars for equipment, and god knows if the demands on your time would be any different. Plus, you still don’t know how to run a firm.

Maybe you are unhappy in your practice of law, but you don’t really have anywhere else to go that is better. You can switch firms, maybe, but how does that help? So you continue along the path that was decided for you in first year on campus interviews, getting progressively more depressed and more susceptible to substance abuse and mental illness.

This is not everyone’s experience, of course.  But it is the experience of too many people.

Now, what if law students came out of law school, articling, CPLED, or whatever system exists next year, and two things were true: First, they had a basic idea of how to run a law firm, and how to manage a client file.  Second, they understood the technology available to help them do that, and what it costs.

This is the part where I apologize for the lie I told above. The truth is you can operate a virtual law firm, from your home, ethically, professionally, and responsibly, with an initial capital investment of around $10,000, no staff, and annual expenses in the range of $20,000.  Assume lawyers knew not only that it was possible, but knew how to do it, or knew how to find out, and that they would have the support of the law society and their colleagues. How would the story be different?

Essentially, solo and small practice becomes much more realistic as an option, and becomes a release valve for many of the things that are wrong with the profession today.  Instead of quitting because they can’t find the work-life balance they want, people stay in the profession.  That increases supply and drives down the price, improving access to justice.  Those who stay in the profession but find it negatively impacting their mental health have a choice available to them that empowers them to choose to do less without risking their career advancement. Less addiction, better self care, and (fingers crossed) fewer suicides. The power imbalance that exists between the firm and the junior associate is reduced, forcing firms to compete with “I could do this from home and make more money” for a supply of junior lawyers.  That will improve the working conditions for all lawyers, not only those who actually take the plunge. Big firms will get smaller, and small firms will get bigger and more common, driving more and more lawyers into the smaller-law area of practice, which tends to be people law, again having positive effects on access to justice. And every junior lawyer with a realistic option of working for themselves will find the calculus different when faced with questions as big as “should I report this ethical violation on the part of my employer,” and as small as “how much pro bono or legal aid work do I want to do.”

But is the math real?  Can you actually do that?

Yes. I know that you can, because I’m doing it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all sunshine and roses.  I have had to expect less compensation.  I have had to learn everything on my own, and from scratch. But what makes me different from other lawyers is that I knew technology before I entered the profession.  I could see, from day one, how things could be done more efficiently.

In a world where the law societies are telling lawyers to be afraid of the cloud, practical learning is infrequent, and practice management teaching is almost non-existent, you have to have a tech background (and be a certain type of crazy, if I’m being honest) to think that taking this plunge is a good idea.

But oh my goodness.  If the law societies could make sole practice administratively easier, and be less prescriptive in their regulations; if law schools adopted context-based learning approaches and forced the students to learn while doing real work in a virtual student firm with the tools that are really out there right now…

Everything could change.

Work-life balance: You measure work, what about life?

Work-life balance: You measure work, what about life?

What gets measured gets controlled. Many law firms state that they are concerned about the work-life balance of their employees. We know they are measuring the work. Are they measuring the life?

This is one of the things that occurred to me as I was going through my annual strategic planning exercise this week. How do you measures wellness? Can wellness be a key performance indicator?Units used to measure work-life balance: hours for time, dollars for profit, but what for wellness?

It turns out that with a little bit of research on the Internet you can find excellent resources on the kinds of questions that you can ask in order to obtain metrics on wellness. First, look to data  you probably already have. If you have records of billable and non-billable time, then you add them together and you have “time at work.” The inverse of that is a measurement of life. If you already have records of absenteeism, that can help.  But if you are serious about wellness, you need to ask questions like “How many days in the last two weeks did you feel physically unwell?” or “How many days in the last two weeks did anxiety or a poor mood interfere with what you wanted to do at work or at home?” or “How are you sleeping?”

Once you decide what questions are important to you, let technology solve the rest of the problem. I created a Google Forms questionnaire with the questions that I was interested in having data on. Then, I created a one line Google Apps script in that form which would email the form to me. It is trivial to have it email the form to a mailing list for your firm. I then set a trigger to run the script at a regular interval.

The entire process took less than half an hour, and the form will take less than five minutes to fill out each time. For that minuscule investment, I have a real measure of the life side of my work-life balance.

What does your firm do to measure your wellness? And if the answer is nothing, what’s stopping them?

Prairie Law Societies: Change is coming, get ready.

Prairie Law Societies: Change is coming, get ready.

The News

“… any sense that lawyers are protecting a monopoly must be quashed.”

There’s a sentence that you don’t expect to hear uttered by the legal profession.

The Law Societies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have announced a joint review of the regulation of the legal profession in their jurisdictions. It has commenced with a discussion paper which can be accessed here.

Read More Read More

Gender inequity means worse lawyers

Gender inequity means worse lawyers

A friend of mine, commenting on the debate recently about the effect of insisting on gender parity for cabinet appointments, said something that resonated with me.

I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like “If we assume that talent is evenly distributed among men and women, that is to say, if we are not sexist, then a merit-based appointment process should result in a gender-balanced selection.  If the resulting selection is not gender balanced, rather than suggesting that merit was the determining factor, it suggests that merit was ignored in favour of something else.  A gender balanced selection would imply merit was the only factor considered.”

It’s a compelling argument, with which I’m inclined to agree.  If you argue that gender equity in the cabinet suggests tokenism, you are implicitly accepting the argument that women and men are not equally talented with regard to the skills required for cabinet.  Now, one could make the argument that cabinet appointments are made from a gender-imbalanced pool of MPs, and so the argument doesn’t necessarily hold there.  That’s a fair critique, although I think the argument that merit was not served is not sustained by a careful examination of the ministers’ resumes.

But do you know what pool of people is half women, or more?  University students.

And do you know what is selected on the basis of merit from among that pool?  Law students.

And do you know what percentage of law students are women?  About 52%, last I heard.  So the legal profession is selecting from among an almost perfectly gender-balanced pool of potential lawyers.

Do you know what percentage, in private practice, of first-year lawyers, selected on merit from among law students, are women?  Roughly half.

Do you know what percentage of 8th-year lawyers in private practice are women?  Last I checked it was somewhere around 30%.

So the same principle applies: whatever systems we have in place that we allow to choose for us who will and will not continue to work in the private practice of law, by virtue of the fact that they result in a badly gender-imbalanced population of senior lawyers, demonstrates by that imbalance that it is not, that it cannot be, merit based.

If we assume that average skill as a lawyer does not vary between men and women of similar experience, and I do; and if we can show that there is a gender inequity in the legal profession, which we can; that means not only do we not have enough lawyers, we also don’t have the best lawyers we could.