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What will legal services look like in the future?

Legal News Reporter

Published: November 4, 2014

Imagine walking into a AAA and being able to not only pick up maps and tickets to places and events, but have access to legal services as well. Does it sound hard to believe?

According to Dr. Paul Paton, dean of law and Wilbur Fee Bowker Professor of Law at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law in Canada, such businesses already exist in the United Kingdom and to a lesser extent in Australia.

“When you look at the way small firms operate in the United States today, it’s not much different than the 1900s,” said Paton. “You might have a lawyer or several lawyers, a secretary and a paralegal. Computers have replaced typewriters and legal research is likely done online, but the basic model for delivering services has not changed.”

Will things continue as they are or will changes be made to the way legal services are offered and who is allowed to deliver them?

Those are just a few of the questions Paton will tackle at The University of Akron School of Law on Nov. 7 during an event entitled “Never Mind the Death of ‘BigLaw’: Access to Justice, Alternative Business Structures and the Future of the Small Law Firm.”

Sponsored by The Joseph G. Miller and William C. Becker Center for Professional Responsibility, the event will explore how changing the rules in the U.S. could expand access to justice for the poor.

“I met Professor Paton about 15 years ago when he was getting started in the professional responsibility field and was impressed with his scholarship and presentations at conferences,” said Akron law professor Jack Sahl, faculty director of The Joseph G. Miller and William C. Becker Center for Professional Responsibility. “Since then he has been actively involved with the American Bar Association’s Center for Professional Responsibility.

“What I find particularly interesting about him is his international experience. He is a Canadian lawyer, did his doctorate at Stanford, has held academic appointments in both the U.S. and Canada, and is well versed in the American system so he will be able to provide unique insights on the differences between the two systems,” said Sahl, who invited Paton to speak.

A member of the ABA Business Law Section Professional Responsibility Committee, Paton was appointed as Reporter to the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission as its research expert on alternative business structures (ABS). He held the spot between 2010 and 2012. He said the commission rejected allowing rule changes that would have permitted alternative business structures to offer legal services along with non-lawyer ownership of firms and fee sharing by non-lawyers. However, Paton said the United Kingdom and Australia play by different rules.

The Legal Services Act of 2007 allowed lawyers and non-lawyers in England and Wales to form businesses together. It also permitted non-lawyers to be involved in the management and/or ownership of these entities.

“If you go to what they call a High Street firm in England, you find the basic services of a small firm but rather than paying someone for secretarial work, this person might be given a share of the profits,” said Paton. “It is the same with technology. Many small firms cannot afford to innovate so they give the IT (information technology) person a share of the profits instead of paying him/her.

“Australia goes to a different extreme,” he said. “There is a personal injury firm in Australia that is listed on the stock exchange. The firm has used the capital to invest in and purchase smaller firms and expand internationally.”

He said an August 2014 report by the Canadian Bar Association recommended that alternative business structures be allowed in the country to improve residents’ access to legal services and to encourage innovation.

Paton, who served as chair and vice chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s National Ethics and Professional Responsibility Committee, said Canada and the U.S. face similar questions: “How much do we let lawyers innovate and what are the important ethical protections that need to be in place to protect the public and make this work?”

“In this country we have a strong tradition of not allowing non-lawyers to share in the ownership of the firm,” said Sahl. “But now even Canada is moving in that direction and we are the last holdout.”

However Paton said, change could be on the horizon in the U.S. as well. He said the American Bar Association launched a new Task Force on the Future of Legal Services in August 2014 and also announced an association with RocketLawyer, an online legal provider.

“While many researchers and policymakers are focused on the potential impact of ABS on large firms, I want to focus instead on what ABS could mean for sole practitioners, small and medium firms. It is those lawyers who are the backbone of legal services in the U.S.," Paton said.

During his time at The University of Akron School of Law, Paton will visit small and large classes as well as meeting with faculty during an informal lunch, which judges and other attorneys will also attend.