With a title like that, you might not expect that this is a post about Alternative Business Structures (ABS) in the legal profession. Bear with me and I’ll get to the point.
Ten years ago, my hand modelling career ended abruptly after barely taking its first breath. I was working as Director of Telecom Regulatory Affairs for the now-defunct Canadian Cable Telecommunications Association. The CCTA, a lobby and policy group representing Canada’s large and small cable companies, had been around since the 1950s. Around the time I joined in 2004, cable companies were entering the home phone business and there were many legal, regulatory and public policy debates underway. Call it “other duties as assigned” if you will, but when I was asked to do serve as a model for the photos in our 2005 annual report, I jumped at the chance.
We couldn’t have known at that photo shoot that we were preparing what would be the final annual report for the organization, because we wouldn’t have known that the second largest member’s surprise departure from the CCTA later that year would lead to the group’s unwinding in early 2006. Try as I might, I can no longer find online those great photos of my hand holding a remote, tapping a keyboard, and holding a coffee (that last one also hinting mischievously at the presence of my nose and smiling lips). So please take my word for it – they were glorious and if properly marketed, I could have had a hand modelling career of Costanzian proportions.
Getting to the point
Memories of careers past and of career roads not taken came back last week upon reading on the legalfutures.co.uk website of the British Printing Industries Federation’s establishment of BPIF Legal. Licensed as an ABS by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in mid-2014, BPIF’s legal team will “provide a range of legal services – all of which will be fixed fee – dealing with employment and commercial issues on top of those that printers get for free as part of their membership of the federation.”
The logic for the development of such an offering is clear and understandable. Within any given industry, common interests may bring parties together to pursue common objectives, but even where the legal issues of any given company within an association are discrete, there is a significant benefit to be had where counsel are expert in both the legal issue and the industry of the company. As the article notes, BPIF Legal, while the first trade association to set up an ABS, is not pursuing a model unique among ABS licesences. It is merely “joining the likes of trade unions and other individual membership bodies in offering specialist legal services for members.”
Head of legal Anne Copley said the previous ban on lawyers employed by trade associations charging for their services made it difficult to justify their employment. She said: “These in-house lawyers have built up substantial experience of the relevant industry sector, and are perfectly placed to offer the sort of practical, commercial legal advice that their members require. This is particularly so in the print sector, which is populated almost entirely by SMEs.”
The concept of ABS licensees applying sector-specific experience in this way is probably best exemplified by Kent Legal Services, where the 125 member legal team of Kent County provides services to over 600 public sector bodies across the U.K.
The ABS debate in Ontario and across Canada
At this time, I’m going to steer clear of setting out a position. My intent in writing this post was two-fold. One, a lament for what might have been if the CCTA had survived through expanding member services to include legal work in the growing UK ABS mold and my modelling work continued. And two, to invite those debating the issue on these shores to expand their consideration of what legal services, client groups and business models can be anticipated if Canadian jurisdictions follow the UK example.
The Law Society of Upper Canada is currently consulting on the matter and has invited comment by end of January on a discussion paper it released last fall. My local law association (County of Carleton Law Association) is hosting a town hall this evening to solicit feedback in preparation of its response to the paper.
Some noteworthy advocacy pieces on the subject are already in circulation. I recommend reading the submissions of the Law Students’ Society of Ontario (for) and of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association (against). To get a sense of the passion and rhetoric accompanying the debate, you may want to read the 59 (and counting!) comment thread to a late December Slaw.ca blog post on the subject. Notable by its absence in these pieces is any comment on what arrangements like BPIF Legal or Kent Legal Services might mean in a Canadian context.
The ABS debates are only just beginning and I’d like to see the conversation broaden before participant positions narrow and harden.