Law Society Strategic Priorities

How do law society strategic priorities align with the fact that in Canada practice is often national in scope, lawyers are mobile and practice in multiple jurisdictions, and the issues facing the regulators across the County are almost uniform? Though they share a broad obligation to regulate the legal profession in the public interest, a role confirmed clearly last week in the Supreme Court’s TWU decision, the ways they envision that to be done, besides ensuring effective day-to-day regulation varies considerably. Here are their current priorities as descried on their websites:

British Columbia – Legal aid and access to justice, equity and diversity centre, law firm regulation initiatives, Truth and Reconciliation, rule of law and lawyer independence, improving mental health for the legal profession

Alberta – strengthening our governance and culture; being a model regulator; improving stakeholder confidence; and ensuring access to justice and the Rule of Law.

Saskatchewan – improving confidence in the LSS among all stakeholders; Improve capacity, competence and knowledge of the membership; Improve access to legal services.

Ontario – Lead as a professional regulator, prioritize life-long competence for lawyers and paralegals, increase organizational effectiveness, engage stakeholders and the public with responsive communications, enhance access to justice in Ontario

Barreau de Quebec – Increase public protection through preventive and dissuasive measures, redefine our governance to allow the Barreau du Québec to be more effective and increase its performance in fulfilling its mission; automate operations and increase distribution networks for information, products and services by ensuring a consistent and consistent quality of service; Defining a strategy that will allow the Barreau du Québec to strengthen the confidence with the public and its members; define a plan of positioning to increase the Barreau du Québec’s leadership in the legal profession; collaborate with legal actors to work together to improve access to justice

Chambres des notaires des Quebec – Maximize the use of technologies to strengthen the protection of the public and more efficient notarial practice

Nova Scotia – Transform  governance and regulation in the public interest, Enhance access to legal services and the justice system, Promote equity, diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

The law societies not listed may have strategic plans. They just are not available on their websites.

The shared, almost universal commitment to access to justice is laudable and something new for law societies, but one wonders what difference  legal regulators can make in A2J absent real and substantial commitments from government and the courts. The recently published report on the Justice Development Goals – http://www.justicedevelopmentgoals.ca/goals – does not suggest very significant  results from most law societies.

Organizational effectiveness and governance is another theme. Being a ‘model regulator’, ‘increasing organizational effectiveness’ and ‘transforming governance’  speak to the structures regulators use. Yet there has been no pan-Canadian discussion about what is required for effective governance. The ongoing governance review in Ontario suggests a need for radical reform with a complete rethinking of both the model for choosing board members and the skills and attributes they require. Manitoba started  this type of reform with an appointed lawyer Bencher process. Alberta is seeking new legislation to modernize governance, but there is nothing on a national scale to suggest it’s a priority.

Another theme, less clear in its focus, relates to improving communications and relationships with ‘stakeholders’ and lawyers. What drives this? Is it a desire that members better know what the law society does or is it to enhance the legal services lawyers provide to improve the outputs of lawyers and law firms? Both are valuable, but the risk of focusing on lawyers rather than the public is risky and real. In the TWU decision the Courts summary consideration of the LSBC’s statutory provisions regarding use of a referendum is not very helpful or insightful as it relates to deciding what is in the public interest.

How do law society strategic priorities align with those of their umbrella organization, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada? The short answer is ‘in part’. The FLSC’s priorities are:

Be a knowledge leader and effectively share information and facilitate collaboration;

identify and promote best practices in professional regulation; and

demonstrate excellence in governance and service delivery.

One would think the first priority would enable the Federation to actually facilitate coordination among its members where they share a common interest and have common priorities. It’s not clear it does that. Its activity plan addresses responding to the TRC ( a priority for several regulators), with the law societies improving the processes of the National Committee on Accreditation and through the anti-money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Working Group, review the Model No-Cash and Client Identification Rules. Each of these properly rest with the national body.

What is striking from this very informal survey is the lack of coordination, uniformity or  consistency in implementing strategy by the law societies. Given they do the same things with virtually the same stakeholders, my observation is that often they take a local and narrow focus, rather than one which recognizes common problems exist for law societies, for lawyers and for the public across the country and they might be better addressed if they did so collaboratively.

I will continue to look for information about what law societies do and how they do it; for indicators that issues national in their scope; and to see if law societies can find ways not to reinvent the wheel in each of their jurisdictions. With such successes as are evident from CanLII, CLIA, CPLED (in the prairie provinces) and the entity regulation work being done collaboratively by Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, it is hard to know why more work is not done across provincial borders to share resources and develop broader expertise. I suspect the answer lies in ‘It’s Canada’ and that how we do things. One would hope that as the profession, law practice and law firm becomes more national that law societies might shed some of their parochial tendencies in favour of broad national initiatives to address matters of importance from sea to sea to sea.