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The new tools of the trade

How big firms are fast-tracking their digitalized legal services.

Legal tech concept

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced law firms to adapt to a dramatic new work environment where everyone is out of office. 

"We're using tools for internal purposes that we haven't used historically when it comes to work from home," says Michael Fekete, the national innovation leader at Osler. "Like virtually all firms or most large firms, we have massively increased our capacity to do that."

The pandemic has also deepened the commitment of many firms to existing tech innovation directed at servicing clients.

"On the legal tech front, what the pandemic demonstrated is the importance of resilience in delivery of services, and the use of technology to streamline these technologies, processes, and different teams of people to streamline delivery of legal services—whether you're in-house or at a law firm," adds Fekete.

Some 15 years ago, McCarthy Tétrault had set up two rooms in its Toronto office for in-person hearings. It turned out to be a fortuitous investment, says Thomas Sutton, a member of the firm's board of partners. During the pandemic, it converted the space into a virtual courtroom.

From there, the firm's lawyers have since conducted discoveries, cross-examinations, mediations, pre-trial conferences, appeals, arbitrations, case conferences and a trial. On the regulatory side, the firm uses the space for virtual attendance.

Depending on the matter, Sutton says proceedings can be held entirely remotely, with no in-person participation. There is also a hybrid format, where lawyers can attend in person at the office while respecting social distancing in the boardroom. Or they can set up a virtual courtroom, as some of his colleagues did recently for a patent trial before the Federal Court. "They actually tried to replicate the courtroom experience as closely as possible," says Sutton.

Osler has also managed to put an extensive suite of tech-based legal tools to good use, says Fekete.

Osler Works tools and products include an online subscription service for privacy information updates; a monthly regulatory and compliance update; a franchise platform for onboarding franchisees and keeping agreements current; and a stress test for real estate transactions. 

Also, the firm offers self-help tools. One of them targets the construction industry. Another is a board diversity tool. There's an interactive "Doing Business in Canada" guide, as well as notification and private placement tools, which helps foreign companies determine if they need to notify the Competition Bureau about a merger. "We're enabling our clients and even non-clients to be more efficient themselves," says Fekete.

Fasken recently launched the next version of its client portal, Edge, says Robert Garmaise, the chief innovation officer at Fasken. The portal, he says, builds on an earlier model that helps clients optimize their operations in sharing documents, tracking moving pieces, reporting updates, or working with a remote team. 

"We're looking at their most frequent workflows, automating their documents, helping them act on the latest news and insights in their industry, and getting ahead of what's in the legal issues," says Garmaise. "[It's] really helping clients be more strategic about how they approach their practice of law."

Blakes is another firm that was well-positioned at the outset of the pandemic to get its staff fully working from home, according to Bryson Stokes, the firm's managing partner in an email response. It managed to fast-tracked and completed several on-going projects geared toward digitizing operating processes. 

"The pandemic acted as a catalyst to accelerate some of our plans, which required flawless execution to accomplish quickly," said Stokes. 

Blakes already had technology in place to serve clients. It can handle closings, large and small, virtually and remotely. Its client portal enables document sharing, matter management, and content sharing.

The firm has a contract review tool that uses machine learning for contract analysis. It has recently been working with clients to consider the contractual terms of their commercial agreements in the context of COVID-19, such as reviews for force majeure provisions. And it has implemented a contract automation tool and is working with clients to draft contracts more efficiently and cost-effectively.

"We are always looking at new technology – pandemic or no pandemic,' says Stokes. "We understand that being on the forefront of technology is important to provide exceptional service to our clients."