Currently, the Law Society of Upper Canada is consulting with the profession as to whether lawyers ought to be permitted to practice in what is referred to as an “alternate business structure” (ABS). The proposals under consultation include the possibility of non-lawyer corporations owning the majority interest in a law firm or law firms being located in big box stores.
Upon Target's arrival in Canada, space in Target stores was leased to pharmacists who provided all the normal services to their customers including the filling of prescriptions. With Target's recent decision to abandon Canada, many pharmacists have been given notice to vacate on short notice. Pharmacists who close their businesses or relocate are required to advise all customers as to where their personal files will be transferred with a prescribed time limit. The short notice given to pharmacists likely made it difficult on many to arrange transfers and notification to customers. Pharmacists will likely work hard to limit the impact, but a closure or relocation of a pharmacy will, nonetheless, have an impact on the customers.
Could this happen to clients of lawyers who practice in one of the alternate structures proposed? What happens if the “corporate” owner decides to terminate a law firm's lease of space in a box store on short notice? Can the impact on the firm's clients be minimized? Are the risks of this any higher than a firm in a non-box store having to relocate at the end of a lease? How can the risks of a dispute over ownership or possession of the files and the privilege over those files be mitigated?
ABS may well be introduced to the practice of law in Ontario, but hopefully not until after carefully considering what can be learned from experiences in other professions, such as pharmacists to ensure any decision as to the manner in which lawyers will be able to practice in ABS adequately protects clients of ABS law firms.