Talk about re-thinking legal services often focuses on large firms and expensive technology.
A lot of this discussion is beyond the means of solo lawyers or small firms. Little wonder, then, that pint-sized, grass roots associations have been popping up to help “solos and smalls” explore how they can deliver legal services in a way that creates value for clients and profit for themselves.
For some time now, I’ve been hearing rumblings that the large Canadian bar associations no longer provide enough value to their members. The sudden formation of these small ad-hoc groups over breakfast, lunch or pizza dinners is a sure sign that the large bar associations aren’t the best way for solos and smalls to exchange ideas, tips and even client referrals.
Solos and smalls have remarkably different experiences and challenges compared with lawyers at the big law firms. These new gatherings fill a void by placing a greater emphasis on the actual “business” of law, than upon “the law” itself. This is something solos and smalls truly appreciate. Their clients tend to be exceptionally price conscious, and these lawyers have far more financial skin in the game than their big law firm cousins — rent, office costs and all salaries come directly out of their pocket every month if revenue comes up short.
Working as a solo or a small can be a lonely and scary existence. Building relationships with colleagues and sharing experiences and ideas are vital to a healthy legal practice. For a profession that is mostly comprised of introverts, finding the right colleague and mentor can be a daunting task at big, traditional legal trade association events. Introverts are more apt to thrive in small, intimate settings where everyone is given an opportunity to be heard, and is encouraged to share.
The inaugural gathering of The Self-Rep Navigators started with inauspicious beginnings. Initially, co-founders Heather Hui-Litwin and Michael Hassell held informal discussions with a select group of like-minded lawyers to gauge interest in helping self-represented litigants (primarily in family law) through limited scope retainer arrangements.
Those discussions resulted in the creation of a small group of lawyers who now gather to discuss how to best provide affordable services in a market that is exceptionally fixated on price.
Lest anyone think that family law is alone in these issues, I was invited to a meeting of the Toronto Business Lawyers Association, recently created by Barbara Hendrickson for the purpose of gathering solos and smalls with a business law focus to connect, provide referrals and share advice on the business of law in a small, informal, non-judgmental atmosphere. It’s an approach that has also worked well for the Legal Innovators Roundtable, which was fortunate to secure sponsorship from Thomson Reuters, but has retained its intimate, small group feel.
These “cottage” gatherings have no formal headquarters, no fees, no annual meeting, no awards, no officers, no directors, no formal legal education agendas and no egos. They’re just groups of lawyers who are trying to make sense of it all, and who are keen to just get on with it.
The intimacy of these gatherings often leads to better conversations, to better connections and to better time spent than what one would receive at your garden variety “continuing legal education” event. With apologies to E.F. Schumacher, this growing “Small is Beautiful” movement in lawyer gatherings may be the future of lawyer associations. It may also result in some exciting, positive and workable changes to legal service delivery.
Financial Post – Toronto lawyer Mitch Kowalski is author of Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century.