Legal Innovation

My partner Martine once said while speaking on legal innovation, that “legal innovation is like sex and teenagers, everyone is talking about it but not much is going on.” 

I found this summed up the innovation climate in the legal industry perfectly. It’s an industry that has clung to an artisanal approach to service delivery, thanks largely to a partnership structure that slows decision-making and a prohibition on non-licensed ownership that chases away capital and fresh ideas. 

But all is not lost. There are some noteworthy advances being made, here in Canada and elsewhere that can be legitimately called innovative.

Before we plunge ahead, I think it’s fair to answer a question that may be on some minds, why rush to innovate? After all, it is a service model that has thrived for hundreds of years.

To answer that I’ll share a statistic I found quite shocking. A 2020 Ipsos Read survey on legal needs found that “85% of British Columbians who face a serious, difficult legal problem get no legal help, or get legal assistance from someone who is not a lawyer.” 

While this survey is specific to the BC market, I think it safe to say that the critical access to justice crisis this points to extends to the other legal jurisdictions in Canada. 

So, one answer to this, as (currently) adopted by the Law Societies of B.C. and Ontario, is to establish innovation ‘sandboxes.’

The notion here is to allow, under close supervision, ideas currently prohibited by Law Society rules to be explored and developed. With some variation between Law Societies, the goals of the sandbox initiative are to improve access to justice, protect the public, and gather data to influence future regulatory changes. 

It also, importantly, recognizes that the greater regulatory certainty that presumably comes from using this mechanism would encourage investment in the ideas being developed. 

It’s a good start. There is a valid question whether it goes far enough, if the severity of the access to justice problem doesn’t demand a more robust response. Well, on that front there is also some good news to report. In the States, Utah, Arizona, and California have opened the door to some profound changes in regulation, in the areas of non-lawyer (ugh, I hate that term), ownership and legal fee sharing with said non-lawyer firms. 

Canada hasn’t gone that far yet (you go Manitoba!), but all-in-all, it’s adding up to look something more than just talk. 


How to Save Money on Legal

No rational person would finance the purchase of their home on a credit card. There are obviously much more tailored and cost-effective financial vehicles out there for that purpose.

I’m struck though, that many companies take a similar approach with their legal spend. For good reason, I’ll hasten to add. For the last several
hundred years there were precious few service options
offered to those needing legal help.
But that has changed. Multiple models have sprung up to give companies a change to strategically adapt how and where they solve legal problems.

One such strategy I’ll expound on is called de-bundling. It goes something like this: Your company looks critically at all the situations where you need legal support. Then, you look at who (or what) is best designed to match those needs economically.

For some tasks, A.I might be the answer, high- volume contracts, maybe a provider like us, a transaction, then private practice counsel. The point is the leave the brains at your traditional external counsel to do specialized work, where their rates match the value they add. Serve the remainder at a much more palatable cost structure.
You’re ahead of the curve as a company doing business today with a legal innovator like us. Continue that momentum to dig deeper into who’s solving your legal problems and you’ll likely find more opportunities to shave costs with as good or better service.

We should all celebrate we have more options than just a credit card now.


Q&A with Joanne Windh from Microsoft

Joanne Windh is the Senior Paralegal at Microsoft in Toronto. We sat down with her to talk about how one of the largest tech companies invests in its legal department and what it says about the future of in-house legal services.

Q: Tell us what your role is at Microsoft?

Joanne Windh: I’m a senior paralegal, and I’ve been at Microsoft for just over two years. My background is primarily in marketing and advertising law.  At Microsoft, I support the marketing organization including operations and sales, manage the Canadian litigation and do some contract review.  Supporting the marketing side of the business is a big chunk of my work.  And that would entail reviewing things like partner programs, agreements, contests, and any type of consumer-facing advertising that they’re looking at doing.

Q: What are the daily challenges you face at Microsoft?

JW: One thing that we get a lot of is repetitive questions – whether on general topics or inquiries about guidance on a process. Answering each client individually with similar responses can be time consuming and slow down productivity.  Although we do a lot of training on a regular basis – like for new hires, our annual trainings or on compliance day – the company is huge and people often move into new roles where their needs or areas of focus may change.  Having access to online resources that can answer basic questions or provide how-to guidance has been a cornerstone of our legal department globally. As a result, Microsoft has created an internal website available to its clients that hosts a vast array of topics and resources.  We have a lean team – there are currently three lawyers and me that support the day-to-day business in Canada – so it is critical that we work as efficiently as possible. Our clients can find online such things as template documents, social media guidelines, presentations, relevant legal cases and guidance on trademark use to name a few.  And it is not limited to just marketing and advertising.  Being a multi-national company, our clients can also find information on contracts and licensing, product development, business code of conduct and even

Q: And it is content for Canada?

JW: The framework is developed in the U.S.  Each subsidiary or region is responsible for localizing their own content. One of my areas of focus is to ensure that relevant Canadian content is displayed, current and easy to find.

Q: What else is Microsoft doing to change your in-house delivery of legal services? How is it unique?es process fit in?

JW: Microsoft used its own AI technology to create a bot that will actually search our online resources.  Clients can either type in their question or they can select from six pre-determined categories. So, for example, if you’re looking for something on NDAs, they can type in “when do I need an NDA?” then the bot – ours is called Zela – will display a brief summary on the topic and it will include all the links that will direct them to the different places on our internal website where they can find information on NDA’s.  Alternatively, a client can select the pre-determined category of “NDA” and continue to click through the options to narrow their search until the answer pops up.  This process allows Legal staff to let go of the more routine, basic questions and focus on higher-level projects. I’ve worked at a few other multi-national companies and I haven’t seen anything like this before.

Q: What is different about the way they invest in their legal teams?

JW: Well, for me, coming to Microsoft was like coming to a whole new world.  I appreciate that Microsoft has a dedicated budget for legal resources and that we can use that to simplify processes and create efficiencies.  Employee development is also supported which helps to ensure that we are able to provide the latest developments to our clients.  We often hear of cutbacks and down-sizing and I have always wondered if companies have truly examined the cost-benefit analysis of the short term pain of the investment and the long term gain of increased productivity and efficiency when they look at cutting legal budgets.

Q: What does this tell you about the direction of the in-house legal industry?

JW: As I see it, there are a lot of opportunities to standardize processes and create user-friendly tools that the client can access on their own. And I would not say that these resources will replace head count. You still need somebody to manage the tools.  Whoever takes on that responsibility needs to have the expertise in those areas to ensure that the information they’re preparing is accurate, up-to-date and relevant to the client.  It’s really more about using time efficiently, having the ability to seamlessly support the clients and creating more time for the members of the Legal team to focus on projects that may be more impactful and critical to the business.


Advice From the Other-side: The legal ops evolution, with Sun Life Financial Legal Operations Director Mimi Bowen

Mimi Bowen is the legal operations officer at Sun Life Financial in Toronto. We caught up with her to discuss the challenge of bringing business skills to in-house legal departments and offer some advice on how law firms can adapt to serve their clients best.

Q: What exactly does the job of legal operations director entail?

A: Legal Ops is responsible for running the business activities of an in-house legal team. This typically involves looking after budgets, vendors, technologies, key initiatives, and processes. Add in strategic planning, communications, data analytics, and knowledge management. It’s fast-paced and no two days are the same. Right now we are more like a start-up, introducing the function, roles, and responsibilities. As the legal ops director, I continually work with leadership, management and our front lines to deliver our Sun Life purpose and achieve our objectives.

Q: And where’s the challenge for you?

A: Well, it’s a nascent field, so there’s no textbook for us to follow. It would be new to lawyers to work with one team that works with the whole of Legal. In our case, we provide a level of support to Compliance, Corporate Secretary, Government Relations, Regulatory Affairs and Sustainability as well. Because we are one of the few teams that work with the whole department, we are in a unique position to impact in-house legal culture. It’s our biggest challenge and opportunity to drive cultural change in how we operate and deliver legal services.

Q: How do you overcome resistance to change?

A: Senior leadership has been supportive. They have invested in the role and are supporting our building out the function and team. To overcome change, I’ve focused on relationship building, developing strategy and increasing frequency of communication. People have needed to time get to know me and the skills and experience I bring to the table. Defining what the future could look like has helped as we identify key initiatives and legal/digital strategies. Also important is spending time to include input from employee focus groups, business requirements working groups, technology demos, formal and informal town halls.

Q: Where does process fit in?

A: A great question, I’d love to say it fits in everywhere but we’ve a long way to go to begin to have a critical mass of process thinkers. Technology is not a panacea and we know we have to pay more attention to process design. The tension between having technology and getting the most out of the tech is often a lack of process understanding, design, and training. We are starting to pay more attention to the relationship between process, people and technology. I believe that kind of attention will lead to better outcomes.

Q: Where do you draw inspiration in developing this expertise in legal ops?

A: I reach out to my networks, like the ACC or the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) for example. I have found folks to be helpful and generous. I’ve spoken with people around the world, most recently in Australia & the UK. It’s an amazing ecosystem where law firms, consulting services, tech vendors and in-house peers somehow all give their time, support, and “how-to-dos” to help each other out. I’ve not seen anything like it and the level of collaboration and support is inspiring.  

Q: If you had one piece of advice for external counsel on how to deal with a modernizing legal department, what would it be?

A: No one’s in their comfort zone anymore. In-house counsel’s role is no longer only about legal issues and identifying risk. The role is evolving and changing into providing solutions to our business partners. In addition, legal practice or those tasks that lawyers should perform and legal delivery or the business of law is also a new dimension that is expanding as legal teams modernize. My advice for external counsel would be to appreciate the duality of the in-house role both as business partners and legal advisors and bring forward opportunities that improve problem-solving for all of legal delivery.