In September 2012, the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) formed its Alternative Business Structures (ABS) Working Group to explore alternative options to permitted law and paralegal firm structures. In general, ABS’s – which are legal in England, Wales and Australia, but not Canada – allow individuals without legal licenses to own organizations that provide legal services.
Alternative Business Structures are a controversial topic among Ontario personal injury lawyers. Their proponents argue that they could lead to innovation and wider access to legal services, while their detractors believe they increase the risk of conflicts of interest and compromised confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege agreements.
In September 2017, the LSUC’s Board of Directors approved, in principle, “a policy to permit lawyers and paralegals to provide legal services through civil society organizations (CSOs), such as charities and not-for-profit organizations,” according to the Law Society Gazette. The society stated that the policy aims to improve “access to justice for individuals who may have legal issues but who have traditionally faced barriers to receiving legal advice from a lawyer.”
The move was met with criticism by some Ontario personal injury lawyers.
“It’s just simply the first step and, two years down the road, we’re going to have full non-lawyer ownership of law firms,” one injury lawyer told Law Times’ Alex Robinson. “That’s where this is headed.”
The Working Group originally intended to table the policy in June, but delayed the decision after backlash from prominent provincial legal groups, including the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association (OTLA) and Federation of Ontario Law Associations (FOLA), felt unable to provide sufficient input.
Despite the criticism, the Working Group insisted that the measure would help marginalized individuals access legal aid.
“What I would say to those who take the position that one shouldn’t do a good thing because it might lead to a bad thing is that they should analyze each proposal on its own merits,” Working Group chairman Malcolm Mercer told Robinson. “It would be a shame if the profession, if it was concerned about non-lawyer ownership, would not permit charities and not-for-profits to serve needs that we all know exist.”
Whether the LSUC’s new policy eventually leads to the formation of Australian-style, publicly traded law firms remains to be seen. For now, the LSUC appears to be taking the feedback from Ontario personal injury lawyers to heart and proceeding with cautious, marginal steps along the road to ABS’s.
If you or someone you know has suffered an injury, contact Will Davidson LLP’s team of experienced and knowledgeable personal injury lawyers today to learn how we can help you on your road to recovery.