Martine Boucher and Vivene discuss the impact of today's reality can have on small and solo legal practices.
Conversations with the President: The state of the profession, Ep 6:
In this episode, Martine Boucher and Vivene discuss the impact today's reality can have on small and solo legal practices, many of which lack the resources of larger firms, and are not always as adept and knowing how technology can help them to adapt faster and more efficiently to change.
Martine Boucher, founder of the boutique firm Simplex Legal. is Chair of the CBA Futures Subcommittee and is a member of the CBA Task Force on Justice Issues Arising from COVID-19.
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Introduction: This is The Every Lawyer presented by the Canadian Bar Association.
Vivene Salmon: Typically, I record conversations with the president at the CBA podcasting studio in Ottawa. Today I’m recording from my home in Toronto while I practice self-isolation and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis so the sound quality might not be as clear as usual. Stay safe and I hope you enjoy listening to the podcast.
Welcome to Conversations with the President; my name is Vivene Salmon. They say when the going gets tough, the tough get going. That saying should be when the going gets tough, the resilient quickly figure out ways to adapt and keep going. That’s because you can be tough but completely unprepared to pivot in order to adapt to new realities. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with a host of new realities to face head-on. In this episode Martine Boucher and I will discuss the impact those realities can have on small and solo legal practices, many of which lack the resources of larger firms. Small and solo firms are not always adept at knowing how technology can help them to adapt faster and more efficiently to change.
Since being called to the bar in Quebec in 1997, and in Alberta in 2012, Martine Boucher has developed experience that includes working at a large national law firm and working as in-house legal counsel. In 2009 she founded the boutique law firm Simplex Legal. Simplex Legal is based on a philosophy of changing the way lawyers and their clients interact. Martine’s Chair of the CBA Futures sub-committee and is a member of the CBA Taskforce on justice issues arising from COVID-19.
Welcome to the podcast Martine.
Martine Boucher: Oh I’m so happy to be here Vivene.
Vivene Salmon: So we have so much to ask you today; I’m really excited that you’re able to join. Let’s turn to really what’s happening right now with COVID-19. What’s the impact of the coronavirus on small and solo firms?
Martine Boucher: Well I think the impact’s been really profound. For some of us it’s brought a lot of opportunities, for others it’s been a lot of challenges that can be turned into opportunities. But it’s been really interesting and I think the best part about being a solo and small firm is we can be nimble. So we can turn around more quickly and get things but we have a little less resources. So the crisis had put that at the forefront and I think everybody’s response has been different but we’ve all been pushed into doing things differently which makes me happy. As the Chair of the future sub-committee we’ve been helping and pushing people and trying to offer ideas on how to do this. So I think the COVID’s really pushed us in that direction.
Vivene Salmon: Let’s turn now to what you’re hearing and what you’re experiencing across the country. Are there regional differences that you are experiencing or seeing as you interact with your clients and other lawyers across the country?
Martine Boucher: Yeah. Well obviously like Ontario and Quebec’s been hit more – it’s been much more difficult with COVID and the number of cases and I think people have had to deal with much more stringent rules around social distancing. So it’s brought a host of issues that companies had to deal with like, you know, anything from you’ve got a piece of equipment and it’s ready to be delivered and you can’t pick it up and how do you deal with it. So lawyers have been struggling to find answers that are not necessarily in the contracts all the way to here in Alberta where the economy was really hard even before this hit. And, you know, many people are talking about this being as hard, if not harder, than the great recession. So there’s another layer of complexity.
So I think each region’s been impacted in a big way but maybe for different reasons at times and that requires us to adjust our response and really develop our empathy muscle to listen to what people have to say and what they’re facing to be able to support them.
Vivene Salmon: What about at the micro level? What about Simplex Legal? How have you had to adapt to operations?
Martine Boucher: You know, that’s an interesting one and a lot of people have been talking about this guilt feeling that some people experience during this crisis and I think us at Simplex, we’ve been feeling that guilt because in some we were built for something like this. Like we’ve been a virtual law firm for almost 10 years so our operations were already digitized. All of our processes were thought in a way that everybody could work remotely. So the challenges and the way we’ve been affected by COVID has been mostly on the human level. So, you know, individuals have had to deal with a spouse working at the hospital and suddenly two young kids at home needing to be home schooled. So while we’re set up to deliver our services, who would have thought with having to deliver home school in the middle of the day.
So there were personal challenges like that but we didn’t have to pivot the way we were delivering our services; we just had to adapt to our personal life which is really how we’ve built Simplex. We’ve built Simplex to help people balance their work, their profession, the way they want to be professionally with their personal life. So I think we’ve done quite well.
Vivene Salmon: And I think this is probably going to be challenged across the country that government as well as businesses and law firms are going to have to think about that human side as we go to the next stage of re-opening with families having to adapt, work from home, even transit systems; all those kinds of things. When we re-open I think those are things that governments too are struggling with how do we do that cohesively.
So there’s a lot of technology out there too that can make working remotely easier but it seems a lot of lawyers aren’t really using technology well or to its full potential. So how easy is it for small firms to identify what they need and integrate new technologies into daily operational activities.
Martine Boucher: That’s a really good question Vivene. I think it’s both super easy and hard at once. It’s easy because the technology is there and it’s – like over the last few years it’s been made so easy to implement. Like when I started Simplex with Jeff about 0 years ago, I was not into technology that much. I had a curiosity but it was “Well, I’ll just play around and see” and we’ve built a whole law firm. You know, we can compete with some of the national law firms and some of the – we’re helping some of the big legal departments so it’s doable and it’s doable with not many resources. At first it was really just the two of us with another lawyer. So it’s not that expensive and it’s not that hard. That said, you need to have an open mind and you need to be willing to play around and try – and maybe not be successful on the time around. And I think that’s where people struggle combined with the change leadership aspect, right?
Like once you have a little bit of a bigger team you have to convince other people that they should invest their time in learning something new that at the end, on the final, they will do better with the technology than without. So what I think COVID has brought us will be better because there’s no other way right now. So people have had to – they’ve been pushed into this need for change so I think this is easier than ever to make that business case. That you need to learn this because it will allow you to work versus it will make you work better which was a discussion we had a year or two ago. Right now people see the case so you can move a little faster.
Sorry, I’m not sure if I’ve answered correctly your question but I think it’s got that two components. It’s more easy than ever and yet it’s hard because of the human side of things.
Vivene Salmon: So for a long time, whenever we talked about innovation in the legal profession, it was understood really that we’re talking about technology. But is there innovation without technology?
Martine Boucher: I think there is a lot of innovation without technology. And it’s funny because I often talk about technology as being a solution looking for a problem. So people often start with technology but I think it’s the wrong starting point. I think you need to start with what’s the problem you’re trying to solve and jumping to a solution – if you look at any of the design thinking processes, the lean of this world – like all these models that help you improve and implement a culture of innovation and ongoing improvement, they always start by saying “What’s your problem.” So I think to me, innovation is just looking at the world around us and looking at problems and seeing what are the problems that we want to fix.
And sometimes a solution is as easy as having a process, as doing a brainstorming on how you are doing things, what’s working well, what’s not working well and how do you want to change things and how do you want to improve. The solution is not always technological; more than often people are the answer, you know, to solving that issue.
Vivene Salmon: And do you think it’s easier than for small and medium sized law firms to be more creative then in terms of, as you discussed, look at things in the ways of how do we solve problems and how do we create it. Do you think there’s a little bit more flexibility for small and medium sized to be more creative and more nimble?
Martine Boucher: The nimbleness is certainly a great factor. For me that’s the biggest advantage that the solo and small firms have is once you see a problem and you decide to do something about it, you don’t have to convince a whole lot of people, you can make your case really easily and you can turn and implement it. So I’ll give you the example Vivene; for the last two summers we’ve been inviting students to work with us for the summer. Like last students join us and we start the summertime with two or three improvement areas that we want to do. And last summer, like in the span of six weeks, we had one of the IFLP, the Institute for the Future of the Legal Practice sending us a student and of our IFLP students implemented a full precedent database automated with workflows and so on. And we had something like 50 contracts already in our database. That was just six weeks of student time.
So I think it just requires us to think differently and it was not a big expense, right? So it’s something that’s available to solo and small firms. If you want to do something and make it happen, just make the plan and find the resources and just do it.
Vivene Salmon: That’s great advice. Martine, what would you see small firms doing to build resilience. Whether it’s with human resources or technology or adapting to change and even future pandemics that unfortunately might be right around the corner. How do small and medium sized firms build resilience?
Martine Boucher: Yeah, that’s a tough one. It’s a beautiful question, it’s something we need to really spend time on but to me it really starts with mental wellness and that’s not something that you do just in time of pandemic or crisis, you need to have those healthy habits implemented and help your team do it. And if you’re solo or you’re on your own, you need to find your tribe. You need to find other people with whom you can connect to make that happen. So there’s different sub-groups within the CBA, obviously, but at the Law Society I’ve seen it across the country. There’s a lot of resources available like, for example, like CALM, which is one of my favourite apps, offers a free membership right now during this crisis and it just gives you the opportunity to do meditation. We’ve set up for our team like yoga classes. So we’ve hired an employee that had been let go and we just asked her if she would do yoga sessions for us.
Like it’s perfect. We’re on Zoom and, you know, sometimes you see a cat walking in front of the camera, but it gives you the opportunity to our team and we’ve extended the invitation to some of our suppliers and the broader group that makes Simplex. All of them are employees but we all combine and we meet each other. We’ve got virtual coffee, we’ve got … so we’ve got lots of ways to engage. Really need to have a strong community surrounding you and you need to take care of your mental wellbeing. And the other part, if I may, there’s two things that we do on a regular basis and it’s really practicing gratitude and a positive focus. Like we try to start every meeting, every conversation, with kind of highlighting what’s the positive that has happened and there’s some great science out there that really shows that if you’re forcing people to scan their environment for positivity, it starts changing your outlook on life.
So that’s all about building resilience and we do regular lessons learned. We always look at projects, look at matters, look at the way our team operates and we constantly ask ourselves what’s working well and we spend a lot of time on that. Then we go to what’s not working well – not jumping the gun. Like everybody wants to talk about what’s not working well but you need again that positivity. And then moving into what can we do better? And just showing people that it is an iteration and it’s a process and we can all get better by following that process. And I think that’s how you build resilience; it’s a combination of taking care of yourself and focusing on positivity and just seeing the world as a big case for ongoing improvement.
Vivene Salmon: And that’s so important, I think so too, just to have everyday positive thinking. Even though there’s so many tough challenges whether personally or with running a business. You’re right, it’s really important to see the world that there is sunshine in the world; it’s not always negative and things do change. So how can CBA help small and solo firms more?
Martine Boucher: I think we need to foster a culture of collaboration. In some ways a lot of people that are working solo and not their firm or like a small team, they’re used to being on their own and they forget sometimes the power of numbers. But I think fostering that collaboration and giving a place for solo and small firms to meet and exchange and find out what’s happening. Like I’ve discovered over the last two, three months that so many technological platforms were offering their services for free. Well I’ve discovered that by talking to other people and just exchanging and everybody is doing their own little part but together as a group we could do so much more if we get together and somebody says “Hey, I’ve done this part, just learn from me.”
We need to break those siloes and stop thinking that if we keep things to ourselves we’re going to have this small competitive advantage on the others. But if you play all together we’re going to all do better and I think execute better on our social contract that is to help the public get access to justice, right?
So I really like that spirit of collaboration and that’s why I started a legal innovation round table in Calgary where anybody who’s interested in trying to do things different, they’re just welcome to join the group. And it’s really informal; we just sit down and we’ve got people from all different spheres like whether it’s the Law Society, the Canadian Bar Association, the university. Technological companies join us. It’s like we’re all sitting there and just sharing our thoughts on the topic. And I think that’s important, you know. I was inspired by Mitch Kowalski in Toronto and I was like “Why not Calgary? Why can’t we have it?” and obviously this could happen everywhere and in any centre. I just had the – I’m forgetting her name – but this lovely lawyer from Winnipeg who called me and wanted to do the same thing over there.
So you can start a spark and inspire other people to collaborate and just sit down together and it’s amazing what can happen when we do that.
Vivene Salmon: Could we switch gears a little bit. So the CBA Legal Futures Initiative produced a report in 2013 that talked about changes the profession needed to make to better serve clients in the future. In a way it feels, to some degree, the future is here; so what stops us from, as a profession, taking our own advice?
Martine Boucher: Oh, this one keeps me awake at night. So I think what keeps us is – it’s a few things but a few very important things. Like humans don’t like change to begin with and I think lawyers are even more resisting to change I think partly due to our training and our love for precedent. As an industry we’ve heard so many times Dr Larry Richards talk about the personality traits that are common to lawyers and, you know, you combine a resistance to change with a lack of resilience which we’ve already talked. But if you’re afraid that you cannot bounce back from mistakes, you don’t want to try new things. And to me that’s a big one that we need to address. What gives me hope is that you sometimes need to instil a sense of urgency for change and I don’t think that the legal industry has felt that sense of urgency.
Like we talk about a switch and that customers are pushing for it but it’s kind of incremental change. It’s not like a big transformational change. I feel that with COVID, for the first time, that the future is now. People are seeing what can happen if we don’t change. We can see how destructive it can be if you cannot meet in person and I think it’s forced people to go through changes not because they thought it would be better but because they had to. And suddenly they see that they can do it and it’s not the end of the world. Like they’ve experienced it and they were OK, like they survived this. We’ve survived this period. For most of us we’ve done it, right? We’ve pivoted, we’ve moved from in-person, on site, like favouring everything, paper to “OK, we can meet by Zoom, we can have a video conference, we can do a podcast like this and it’s not that hard.” And I think for the first time people will have a precedent, the lawyers will have a precedent that they can do change and it wasn’t as bad as they thought. So that gives me a lot of hope Vivene.
Vivene Salmon: It is very encouraging. How are small firms in particular, do you think, disadvantaged by a lack of modernization in the courts? What are you hearing small firms share with you?
Martine Boucher: Well, the trial lawyers are really struggling right now. You know, if you’re a small practice or a solo and your livelihood depends on going to court and there is no court hearing, there’s a big financial impact right now. I don’t know, like I keep going back to the data that I heard like attending all the various annual meetings with the CBA and hearing the reports from the Chief Justices across the country. Like there was a huge access to justice crisis before COVID hit and I’m really concerned about how this is going to unplay. Like we had huge backlog – I can’t remember the exact numbers but if you were to file a claim in Queens Bench in January 2020, I think your best hope of getting your day at the court was three years from the moment you filed.
And, you know, business and people cannot wait for that long. So that was the backlog before COVID hit. So add to that the fact that the courts have pause for anything that’s not urgent – and which is a lot of things – so all that backlog is just adding on top of the pile. And add to that every dispute that will arise as a result of COVID; like obviously like force measure disputes, contracts, supply chain disruption, family law. Like people who have been stuck in a house; like violence like … you know, there’s going to be so much issue on family law and all of this is going to combine and just compound and make the problem bigger. So I think there’s a great opportunity for the solo and small firms if they’re doing trial to rethink the way they can move forward.
But it won’t be just courts, I think they’ll have to think differently. It’s scary and it’s exciting all at once. But that’s what I hear is people are just either jazzed by the opportunities or they’re paralyzed by fear and we need to find a way to move forward and do this differently so that solo and small firms can thrive. Not just survive but thrive. And that’s where I think we can bring some value Vivene.
Vivene Salmon: Martine, thinking about these complex issues, access to justice, the issues in family practice, I was thinking about this for a long time myself as this pandemic unfolded. And I thought it was important for the CBA to have some of those in organized voice and that’s why we started the CBA taskforce on justice issues arising from COVID-19 and the first meeting of the taskforce happened not too long ago on April 23rd and I know you’re a part of that. What do you hope to see come out of the COVID taskforce?
Martine Boucher: I want to see a strong thought leadership about the future of our courts. Richard Suskin’s just published a book about online courts and what he sees around the world what can happen, where do we need to go. And he keeps on talking that it takes three to four years from the moment there’s a real desire to change to implement a new system and a new way of doing. I’m hoping that the taskforce – and my biggest wish for the taskforce is to bring that sense of urgency and a clear call to action so that we can start changing things and provide a better access to justice. It’s a big blue sky goal but I think it needs to start with that clarity that we want to do things differently and urgently. The sense of urgency is often what’s missing. Otherwise we’re going to be talking about this for another 10 years and there’s an immediate need and I think this need has been made even more pronounced by the combination of what we discussed earlier.
You know, the combination of stopping the courts, adding new battles, adding new issues and existing backlog and existing problem that was already quite bad to be blunt.
Vivene Salmon: Yeah and I think it would be tragic as well. There’s so many stakeholders that are part of solving this issue and of course, they all have a very important role to play and our government’s having an important role to play as well in terms of investing more money in the justice sector. Martine, do you have anything to add? I feel that we’re coming to the close of our time. I find these issues so interesting, I feel I’ve had so many interesting guests, including yourself. I feel like we could talk on and on for hours about them but I know we only have limited time so I’m wondering if there’s anything that perhaps you’d like to leave listeners across the country with.
Martine Boucher: That’s great. I’m so glad you invited me and I feel the same way. I feel we could continue talking for such a long time. but I think for my parting words is the financial crisis in 2008 has changed in the legal industry in some ways. I think COVID will be another defining moment and this is our chance, this is the time for us leaders in the legal industry to really make an impact on our society. And I hope people get their head above the water enough to move from that survival to thriving and see the opportunities to instil long lasting change and be that positive force in our society. So anybody who’s interested in having those conversations, I really encourage them to contact the Futures sub-committee, reach out to me personally like we can continue this conversation offline and really bring those ideas to the table and start executing on them.
We need to stop talking and start doing and it starts in smaller pieces and let’s just move the needle. We can do this together.
Vivene Salmon: In this episode I’ve been speaking with Martine Boucher, co-founder and managing partner of Simplex Legal.
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