Christine Duhaime founded the Digital Finance Institute, a think tank for financial technology, law and policy, and is one of Canada’s most visible lawyers specializing in financial crime and anti-money laundering. CBA National Senior Editor Yves Faguy caught up with Duhaime to discuss the issues emerging at the intersection of law, fintech and digital currencies.
CBA National: What’s most interesting to you about fintech and law right now?
Christine Duhaime: For one, there’s the “blockchain,” which is this really interesting distributed ledger system where transactions don’t go through a middleman – or a financial institution, or a central bank – but where you’re tracking the transaction online. So we can actually track the transaction, see it, know who the parties are, and cover the anti-money laundering compliance side of it. So eventually, you wouldn’t really need FINTRAC (Canada’s financial intelligence unit), if you think about it, because if we move towards a digital currency and a blockchain, every single transaction of every single person is going to be online.
N: How are the financial services and legal industries going to change as a result?
What is it that lawyers do?
“They help people navigate complexity and manage enterprise legal risk," according to Daniel Katz, an expert on emerging legal technology and one of the speakers at a conference put on by LegalX and Thomson Reuters in Toronto this week.
A follow-up question to that is, how does one put a dollar figure on a lawyer’s work, other than relying on the billable hour? Unfortunately for clients, it’s the complex nature of legal services that makes it so hard to ascribe value to what lawyers do. For the unsophisticated client in particular, it’s almost impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff.
But in the age of data analytics, that is all quickly changing. There are several tools already available on the market that help companies control their legal spend. Last year, AIG launched a legal consulting company that harnesses the insurer’s own internal data to sell it to corporate clients to help them set competitive pricing for legal services. Increasingly, law departments are looking at past case performance to select law firms and lawyers, says Toby Unwin, co-founder of Premonition LLC, a Florida outfit that uses artificial intelligence to determine the effectiveness of trial lawyers.
Of all the technological advances that could disrupt the legal profession, one of the most intriguing is the decentralized autonomous organization (DAO).
DAO is the latest phenomenon to emerge from another phenomenon: the blockchain.
For those not yet versed in the technology, blockchain is Bitcoin’s core innovation. It serves as a secure digital ledger that records legal rights and so can verify transactions, publicly, without the need of a middleman (such as a lawyer). The fact that it’s public, in theory, makes it far more difficult to carry out fraudulent transactions (some will say impossible, but they might have also said the Titanic was too technologically advanced to sink).
By skipping the middleman, blockchain can help speed up business processes by making it easier for parties to complete transactions and enforce contracts, without involving lawyers. It’s why proponents call it a trust machine.
The marketplace, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
Just ask Uber’s founders, who in a few short years built the world’s most highly valued private company by understanding how hard it is for people to get around town. Airbnb, another champion of the on-demand economy, jumped at the opportunity to help homeowners make money from spare rooms by connecting them to tourists looking for a more authentic travelling experience. There’s also the emerging FinTech sector, credited with helping consumers gain access to credit where banks refuse to offer loans.
How strange then, that the legal industry persistently ignores a massive market of consumers with legal needs that, for whatever reason, continue to go unmet.
For the past couple of years, industry watchers have predicted that law firms will soon meet their Uber moment, as technology loosens the grip they have had on clients for decades.
Canada’s legal market is currently estimated at C$26-billion – a fraction of the U.S. market, now pegged at roughly C$555-billion, but significant nonetheless. Even more astonishing is that up to 85 per cent of Canadians choose not to involve a lawyer to resolve their legal problems.
BidSettle is a new online tool that facilitates online settlements by allowing parties in a dispute to exchange confidential settlement offers and counter-offers. CBA National sat down with its co-founder and CEO, Alexandre Désy (pictured above; the other co-founder is lawyer Philippe Lacoursiere) about using technology to help give people access to legal solutions.
CBA National: What gap in the market is BidSettle trying to fill?
Alexandre Désy: Well there's a huge gap in the market. Nobody uses legal services anymore except the rich, the poor who can use legal aid, and companies. At the least three quarters of the people don't use legal services anymore. We're trying to help those people help themselves. So a two-day trial will cost you $25,000 to go through the whole process — $50,000 if you take into consideration both parties, and we’re not even [factoring in] the risk and emotional hassle that a three-, or four-year long process will do to you. So for anything under $60,000, it's not interesting economically to use the justice system.
N: How does BidSettle work?
AD: If you're getting sued for, say $20,000, the website will ask you what is the maximum that you're ready to give to settle, and to the other party it asks it what's the minimum it’s ready to receive to settle. And if they overlap, we split it in half and the settlements are automatically sent to both parties. It's free to use until a settlement is reached. Then we take 2.5 per cent for both parties. We then give back 15 per cent of our profits to access-to-justice initiatives.
N: What kind of cases is it ideal for?
AD: Sometimes emotions are involved and you want to preserve a relationship where people need to say I'm sorry; and so there are a lot of situations where BidSettle doesn't apply. But there are also situations where emotions get into the way and where it's better to have an emotionless process, because some people just can't talk to each other. It's only for cases that can be settled for a [dollar] amount.
N: How often are settlements reached?
AD: We launched [a couple of months] ago, so the stats can't tell us right now with certainty. It also takes time to use the tool because you might not find an overlap right away.
Yves Faguy is the senior editor of National Magazine. / Yves Faguy est le rédacteur principal du magazine National.