Firms will need to start thinking about a potential future point person that could work with regulators
Proposed legislative changes could usher in new regulatory options for big firms dealing with the Law Society of Ontario.
In turn, it means those firms could start thinking about a potential future point person that could work with regulators, says Rebecca Durcan, a partner at Steinecke Maciura LeBlanc, a Toronto firm focusing on the regulation of professions and industries.
“It opens up a whole new opportunity for firms to really look at the people within their organization to ascertain who is the best person to discharge this all-important role. And it may not be the managing partner — a managing partner may not have the time or may not have the skill set or the personality,” she says. “This is actually is an exciting opportunity to present new leadership opportunities within firms.”
Discussion of a firm-focused regulation regime has come to the fore amid a bill before Ontario’s legislature. Among other changes, Attorney General Doug Downey’s bill 161 would alter the Law Society Act to allow "governing the practice of law and the provision of legal services through a firm.”
“It wouldn't necessarily be an expectation that the firm would discipline the member itself. It's an expectation more of a responsibility and accountability. So, in this way, the law society, ideally would be sort of taking a step back and saying, ‘Listen, we're not going to get into the nitty gritty,’” she says. “There's an immediate point the law society can talk to you and say, ‘Okay, what went wrong here? What issues prevented you from ensuring that the lawyers in your organization were aware of the standards?’”
If approved, the act would define what qualified as a law “firm” and require a designated person in the firm to work with the LSO for documents and registration. In the past, the idea has been lauded as a way to better encourage diversity and inclusion at the firm level.
“I would really urge firms to take this seriously,” says Durcan. “You're going to want to find the right person that has that ability to, for lack of a better term, effectively teach and regulate within their own organizations. Because if you don't pick the right person, then not just the person who will suffer, but the firm as a whole.”
On its face, the proposal looks similar to what’s already used in other provinces, and would make it more efficient for the law society to rely on a point person, rather than focusing on individual lawyers, says Durcan.
“It's not a whole new layer of regulation,” she says. “To me it's a more effective way of regulation and ensuring that the public are encountering and dealing with lawyers that are aware of the obligations imposed upon them by the law society. . . I think this is a real positive, positive change, and it's really just keeping up with our other Canadian neighbors.”
While the legislative changes focus heavily on firm regulation, Durcan says the regulation style isn’t meant to make things harder on sole practitioners and small firms.
“A lot of the resources and a lot of the efforts of the Law Society are dedicated to ensuring that the small and solo lawyers have the necessary tools to effectively serve their clients. And that makes sense because the vast majority of lawyers in Ontario do not work for big firms,” she says. “What they're trying to do is create more of a culture of compliance. Big firms, to be blunt, have the resources and money to ensure that all the expectations of the law society are being met. For smaller organizations, it’s a little more difficult.”