Draft Legal Services Charter stirs things up

The Draft Legal Services Charter has been published for comment by the Department of Justice and promises to impact on the legal services industry quite profoundly.  When I speak of the legal services industry, I am referring to all the parties affected by the Charter.  These parties include law firms, organisations that provide legal services and government.  The net is cast pretty wide.

For various reasons law firms in particular have been slow to introduce broader representation of lawyers who are not white and male.  These reasons range from internal policies that frustrate career paths to the allure of more prestigious and better paid positions in business.  The end result is that law firms are often very white and male at the top.  This has been changing over the last few years as firms begin to realise that without better representation and ownership, their client base will shrink rapidly as prospective clients look elsewhere for empowered firms to do their work.

The Charter also seeks to facilitate better access to legal services by people who simply cannot afford such legal services and specifically mentions the inadequacy of legal insurance schemes in this regard.

Another issue the Charter seeks to address is entry into the legal profession and barriers that prevent candidates from meaningfully entering the profession and staying there.  This links back to representation of non-white male lawyers in the industry and greater empowerment of those individuals.  In this regard, the Charter states the following:

The Organised Legal Profession undertakes to broaden beneficial participation and the ownership base  of their companies/partnerships/associations to ensure that at least 35% of their services and ownership/partnership/association is black, of which at least 50% must be women, and at least 4% of people living with disability, within the next five years.

Achieving these levels will be no simple task.  It will also mean that the legal profession in five years will look and work very differently than it is and does now.  The Charter also contains provisions in terms of which the profession undertakes to send as much as 60% of their briefs for work to black practitioners by 2008.

There is no doubt this initiative will completely alter the legal services industry.  It remains to be seen whether this change will be positive or not.  One challenge is to ensure that the quality of legal services does not deteriorate as the industry is forced to implement these measures.  At the same time, the industry has been unable or unwilling to transform itself on its own and intervention by the government has proven to be necessary.

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