Changes looming large for the business of law in B.C.

Increased litigation in employment, HR, Indigenous reconciliation arenas predicted

Steven Chua/Squamish Chief

Still reliant on manila folders and paper records to conduct much of its business B.C.’s judicial system and legal industry appears to be largely stuck in the late 20th century.

While COVID-19 has slowly forced the system to digitally adapt, B.C.’s law sector has adjusted to significant changes in established fields and the prominence of new areas of practice.

“[Legal fields] don’t necessarily decline, they just evolve,” said Chilwin Cheng, founding principal of Ascendion Law. “As long as human beings disagree with each other, you’re always going to have a need for lawyers who are trained to help people distil their problems down to the easiest ideas and solving them.”

There were entire criminal law practices that focused on defending clients facing impaired driving charges in the early 2000s. Eventually, the government found it too difficult to prosecute these cases and turned to the Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC) to enforce administrative fines. Those lawyers didn’t just disappear; they used their skills and experience to help clients navigate the ICBC licensing system.

A similar evolution is occurring across many fields of law. Family lawyers used to spend most of their time in the courtroom, but increasingly family law cases are being mediated rather than settled before a judge. This hasn’t eliminated the role of family lawyers, but rather how they operate.

As with most industries, the pandemic had a significant impact on family law, accelerating some trends and creating new ones. According to Cheng, families being forced to spend time together during lockdown exacerbated pre-existing issues for many couples. This resulted in a surge in divorce, custody and other cases associated with family law.

The fallout from the pandemic will likely be responsible for growth in some legal practices, according to Cheng.

For example, when it comes to the profession’s litigation side, there will likely be an increase in employment and human rights cases concerning proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

Cases involving what employers are allowed to ask, what consequences may unfold and what vaccine exemptions are acceptable are likely to provide fodder for significant litigation in the upcoming months.

In addition, private businesses will likely seek legal advice or internal counsel to support the review of their employment contracts and find ways to accommodate their employees.

Cheng said that as pandemic-related government supports are rolled back, there will likely be an increase in the number of insolvency, bankruptcy and commercial tenancy disputes. Lawyers will be able to capitalize on these cases and on the potential surge in financial lawyering resulting from anticipated interest rate increases.

Beyond the pandemic, Cheng is expecting significant changes in B.C.’s legal industry related to Indigenous reconciliation.

“We have an increased push by all levels of government for Indigenous reconciliation,” said Cheng. “That is going to create more opportunities and the need for people … to work out all of the ways the two legal structures – the traditional Indigenous legal system and the legal system inherited from the U.K. – can be married together.”

Working through the complex legal issues that arise from economic impact agreements, resource development and land claims will require a concerted legal effort. The acceleration in Indigenous law could also help to make B.C.’s legal profession more diverse said Cheng – a goal the Law Society of BC has been working towards for some time.

A lawyer’s role within the profession is expected to change in the long term.

Cheng said the business of law is under increased pressure to include other trained professionals within the industry such as paralegals, immigration consultants and legal administrative assistants. Other professionals are now performing roles traditionally under the purview of a lawyer, such as drafting contracts, incorporating companies and other tasks that don’t necessarily require a law school degree. Counsellors, psychologists and non-lawyer mediators are becoming more prominent in family law.

And increasingly, the legal profession no longer exclusively means lawyers and judges, according to Cheng.

Process specialists, technologists, paralegals and counsellors are becoming an essential part of the legal system. Cheng said that society needs to become more comfortable with this concept, and the industry needs to figure out how to effectively embrace it. •