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Is “Business” a Dirty Word in Law?

Andrew Pilliar

Monday, September 23, 2013

I remember being told at law school (not that long ago) that lawyers were more than “mere” legal plumbers.  The implication was that law was a profession (i.e. good, reputable), not a vocation (i.e. bad, dirty).  And indeed, as Professor Wesley Pue has noted, there is a long history within the legal profession of praising high-minded professionalism while denigrating the crass commercialism of business.[1]

I began to question how lawyers think about the business side of what they do while doing research for my LLM.  My research included a case study of Pivot Legal LLP, a full-service law firm in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, which had the dual goals of providing income for the well-known legal advocacy Pivot Legal Society and delivering affordable legal services within the community.  During my interviews, I heard many comments to the effect of “law is a business”.  The implication was clear: without a viable business model, efforts to provide accessible legal services will be short-lived.

The choice between profession and business is a false dichotomy.  Lawyers who are interested in their profession should also be interested in how law operates as a business.  Work settings have important effects on people, including decisions to remain in legal practice or not.[2]  My own work has suggested that dissatisfaction with current business structures could encourage lawyers to take steps to do things differently in order to improve access to justice.

Taking “the business of law” seriously has important implications for access to justice.  The recently-released CBA report, Reaching Equal Justice: An Invitation to Envision and Act, makes a strong case for lawyers and other legal service providers to innovate to deliver more accessible services.  But how far will this call to embrace innovation and entrepreneurialism be heard?

The profession/business divide is a concept that is often embedded in lawyers’ conceptions of their role.  Access to justice research has historically not focussed on how business and practice decisions affect access to justice.  Notwithstanding recent discussion of “unbundled” legal services, there has been relatively little systematic analysis of how the business of law affects access to civil justice.[3] This must change.  In the world of corporate affairs, there has been an increase in awareness and discussion of socially beneficial businesses in recent years, including structures such as “low profit limited liability companies”, “benefit corporations”, and “community interest companies”.[4] It is possible to imagine analogous practice organizations in law that aim to improve access to legal services.

The CBA’s Legal Futures Initiative may be a good place to start this conversation.  But in order for people to engage in that discussion, they will need to engage with the reality that law is both a profession and a business.  Increasing lawyers’ understanding of the market for legal services may help elucidate reasons why legal services are as inaccessible as they are.  It may also help identify ways in which lawyers – and others – may provide legal services in ways that allow those who need but currently do not access legal services to do so to a greater degree.

Is it possible to provide affordable legal services with current regulatory and funding models?  What are the barriers to more practice innovations to improve access?  Should law schools play a role in introducing future lawyers to the business of law?

These are questions worth pursuing.


Andrew Pilliar is PhD student at the UBC Faculty of Law