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Subscription legal services on the rise

A business model that predates the pandemic is finally gaining acceptance in the Canadian marketplace.

Martine Boucher, co-founder Simplex Legal
Martine Boucher, co-founder and managing partner, Simplex Legal

If ever there was any doubt that a non-traditional law firm could make a splash in the Canadian legal marketplace, Simplex Legal has shown that it is in fact possible, and that there is more to come.

The Canadian legal tech company, focused on subscription legal services, is joining forces with Epiq Global, a legal tech firm based in the United States. Epiq is acquiring Simplex Legal's innovative arm, while the legal counsel side of the business, Simplex Legal LLP, will offer services to Epiq's clients as an affiliate. Simplex Legal has built itself into a national virtual law firm with more than 25 legal professionals and has been a pioneer in the subscription legal services market geared towards in-house clients.

According to Simplex Legal co-founder Martine Boucher, the acquisition is validation that her journey to build a different kind of law firm was worth it.

"It's nice recognition for the work we do," says Boucher, also the managing partner. "It opens markets for us that were there but not easily accessible."

Ten years ago, the legal tech industry was abuzz about alternative legal service providers, the emergence of legal tech in the form of e-discovery, and regulatory reform. Alternative business structures became part of the conversation, and we were hearing familiar arguments against the billable hour. It was in that environment that Boucher and co-founder Geoff Best, both former GE executives, started Simplex Legal in 2012. The company began by offering to embed lawyers in companies, on a part-time or as-needed basis, and act as in-house counsel. Boucher realized clients wanted even more flexibility and decided to move to a subscription fee model, where clients would pay a monthly fee to access legal services. Clients can buy additional "credits" as needed.

"You get what you need when you need it, and it allowed us to develop long-term relationships with our clients," says Boucher. "For some people, it's great to work from home. For us, we pick up talent where they are, so it gives us more options. We are expecting more people to pick up the model. Clients are now more into this remote, flexible model."

Boucher was also looking to do legal work differently. She decided to make the firm virtual from its inception. With a different fee structure and a different work environment, she faced criticism within the industry. "We would get objections from others saying what's wrong with the traditional model?"

Her small national firm, as she likes to call it, quietly expanded into all provinces and territories in Canada. Given where we are, it may seem quaint now to discuss the viability of a virtual law firm. Needless to say Simplex had no issues with lockdowns and mandates as the company continued to go about business as usual through the pandemic.

"Covid accelerated a lot of change," says Boucher. "It legitimized our business model. It made recruitment easier for us. People are looking for this model and trying to find a place like us. Clients are looking for options. In our business development, it used to take a lot of steps. We still take steps, but it's much easier and smoother to get new clients. We already use virtual tools so we could focus on our team and the clients without having to worry about switching into an online environment."

Then Epiq, a global tech company that caters to the legal industry, came knocking on their virtual door. Epiq has been expanding quickly throughout international markets. Earlier this year, it opened a cloud-based data centre in Brazil to  Latin America services focused on Brazil's GDPR privacy legislation. It also launched Epiq Counsel in the U.S.  and has partnerships with U.S. Am 100 firms. But the Simplex deal represents its first major foray into Canada.

"They were looking for a national firm [as] their first acquisition into Canada," says Boucher. "We target similar clients, and they have a sales team that can support us, not to mention all the other resources that are now available to us to continue our growth."

While Boucher and her team were busy negotiating the biggest deal in their company's history, Blaine Korte and Kim Bennett were getting ready for what would become one of the biggest wins in their careers.

A year ago, the duo had only met in a virtual breakout room on subscription legal services at the 2020 Clio Cloud conference. Korte had already built his legal tech platform to help lawyers implement subscription legal services in their practices. The idea came from working with Saskatchewan lawyers on access to justice issues. Bennet was running her boutique subscription services law firm K Bennett Law LLC, serving clients in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As they chatted in the virtual room, Korte got an idea.

Korte got in front of the camera and made a quick video. "I said this is not a sales pitch. Let's work together."

Bennett was curious. "I love testing legal tech and we had a good rapport," she said. "I thought, 'well why not have this conversation?'"

In March 2021, Korte and Bennett announced their partnership and launched a revamped company they called Fidu.

Fidu's goal is simple: support legal teams in implementing subscription legal services by creating a cheaper, more efficient software that will reduce overhead costs. It's a similar model used by Simplex, who boasts having low overhead costs and passing on the savings to clients through subscription pricing. Fidu's client portals, which law firms can customize, include document automation, booking meetings and an onboarding process for new clients. It uses popular integrations like Clio, Zapier and Calendy. 

"I've been really honest and frank about how I didn't want to use the billable hour," says Bennett. "When I started my law firm, I was hourly billing. I quickly learned that it did not work for my clients or myself. I knew I wanted to do something that would work better for me, my well being and that would allow me to expand my impact."

The duo decided to participate in Clio's Launch//Code Developer Contest as a way to get more visibility. Their focus is on small/solo firms similar to Clio's client base.

"There's a lack of process mapping," says Bennett. "There's nothing wrong with creating predictable value. Lawyers should focus on the high-value work, like issue spotting and advising clients. We're offering solo/small firms and legal teams the tech tool to implement and deliver a sustainable client-centered business model. When we talk about legal teams, we mean lawyers, paralegals and legal assistants."

In early October, Fidu was chosen as one of the five finalists in the contest. Bennett began to receive messages from women, particularly women of colour, asking how they could support her.

"For BIPOC women, when you see someone like you succeeding, it feels like their success is part of your story," says Bennett.

Even though they were finalists, it didn't cross their minds that they would win. Korte watched the announcement live in his Saskatoon home while Bennett was in a watch party in Puerto Rico. Fidu won the Viewer's Choice award and the $100,000 grand prize for Best New Integration.

"It was surreal," says Bennett. "When I saw our name and our logo on the screen, I still couldn't believe it."

"We're still in the early stages of our company, so it's great to get the recognition," says Korte. "Maybe it's the Saskatchewan humility, but I was thinking how can we compete with such a strong group of companies? So much goes into pitches and we did it together."

Their next step will be to hire more staff and building a community through mentorship programs and additional resources.

"We're focused on the bigger picture and continuing the mission," says Korte. "For example, we're looking at what subscription services means in family law. We want to talk more about how lawyers can tangibly implement subscription services. Our business will grow when our clients grow.