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Law firm evolution

Old habits die hard in the legal profession. This time might be different.

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Digital technology has been a saviour for many law firms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though leading firms were already trying to harness it to deliver legal services, the temporary shuttering of offices might have truly opened the door to a permanent evolution in how firms run themselves.

“In many respects, we are continuing to do what we have been doing for years,” says Michael Fekete, national innovation leader at Osler. “But we're finding that there's even more of a recognition that what we have been doing is what will need to happen. Not just in a firm like ours, but across the industry.”

According to Matthew Peters, the national innovation leader at McCarthy Tétrault, a couple of trends are at play.

First, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of cloud solutions. “It’s underscoring the shift from law firms trying to manage their own technology on their own, which has been historically the way. We're moving away from that to cloud-based, and obviously, this accelerated the adoption,” says Peters.

Second, Peters observes behavioural change and change management in an industry that has a reputation for being slow to adapt. “Things that people thought we would never do or could never do are now being done very quickly,” he says. “People are recognizing in the industry that your changes are actually effective.”

Craig Brown, a partner in the emerging technology group at Fasken, says that cohorts across the firm have adopted remote work and digitized processes. “You would have thought maybe the adoption propensity would have been higher amongst younger lawyers with a bunch of resistance by more senior managers,” he says. “But that has not been the case.”

Bryson Stokes, the managing partner at Blakes, said the firm was well set up for people to fully working from home, although some ongoing projects were fast-tracked to digitize operating processes. The pandemic, the transition to working remotely and a greater reliance on technology accelerated its progress, Stokes says in an email. “I’d anticipate continuing to build on what we’re doing and continuing to deploy new technology that makes us more efficient and productive.”

Also, efficiency and productivity have barely suffered as a result of the move to online and work-from-home. “We probably had a drop in productivity of about one hour that Monday (after offices closed). It bounced right back on Tuesday, and it hasn't changed since," says Peters. “This is something else leaders should really be thinking of as far as enterprise-wide workflow tools that will help them to be more efficient.”

Brown says that Fasken staff in Toronto are enjoying the absence of a downtown commute and the trust that the firm is placing in them to work without in-person supervision. Many may wish to continue with a work-from-home arrangement. “The general observation has been that things can't possibly be going better,” he says. “The work is getting done. Folks are as or more productive than before.”

“It's been relatively seamless for Fasken migrating to this virtual world,” adds Robert Garmaise, the chief innovation officer at the firm.

Legal tech is a competitive advantage

Technology is not just keeping firms running; it is becoming key to client service.

Osler, for instance, has an extensive suite of technology tools and its Undertakings Management Tool won a Precedent Innovation Award in 2019. The firm is also a supporter of the Legal Innovation Zone website incubator at Ryerson University. Blakes has a well-recognized fintech practice that has been recognized as a leading law firm by Chambers FinTech 2019.

McCarthy Tétrault has even repurposed a room in its Toronto offices (see separate story) that was intended for in-person hearings, into a place where it can conduct a wide range of legal functions. Since March, it has completed discoveries, cross-examinations, mediations, appeals, arbitrations, pre-trial conferences, case conferences, argued motions, and started to conduct trials.

Fasken just launched the latest version of its Edge digital collaboration platform. Brown says the client portal has been well-received by clients and firm lawyers alike. He considers leadership in legal technology as a value proposition when clients are choosing firms for mandates.

“It just reflects the competitive nature of the industry. A lot of firms have good people and good reputations. We’ve got to bring the whole solution, and if we can bring a technology aspect that other firms don't have yet, that helps differentiate us further,” adds Garmaise.

Modernizing litigation procedures

Much of the technology discussion since the pandemic shook up the legal system has centered on modernizing the courts and court administration. Brown says he knows of judges who have taken it on themselves to use technologies such as Zoom to keep cases moving. Thomas Sutton, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault, says lawyers themselves and many judges are keen to modernize the system.

“If there's a silver lining out of COVID –  I think there will be lots of silver linings despite the disruption –  this is going to have accelerated the view on how we conduct certain pieces of litigation – not just hearings, but more importantly, discoveries,” he says. “I think the bar is ready. I think the bench is ready.”

The Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule 1.08) allow for video and audio hearings and witnesses, which Sutton says could dramatically speed up motions and other arguments in civil matters.

“That is an efficiency in the civil justice system that we're lacking right now,” says Sutton. “There's something to be said for at least certain types of motions being done this way. That's an access to justice issue – a lot of people are surprised how long things take -- frankly, that could be the low hanging fruit.”