Bonus Episode: Yves Faguy speaks with Laura van Wyngaarden of Diligen and Peter Aprile of Counter Tax Lawyers to discuss how COVID-19 could change the way we work in the legal sector
Bonus Episode presented by CBA National and CBA Futures: After the pandemic: The future of justice, Ep 2:
Yves Faguy speaks with Laura van Wyngaarden of Diligen and Peter Aprile of Counter Tax Lawyers to discuss how COVID-19 could change the way we work in the legal sector.
In this second episode, the guests talk about how the legal market may or may not change after the pandemic, what the motivation should be for firms to adopt technology and how remote work is likely to change future career paths.
Laura Van Wyngaarden is the Co-Founder and COO of Diligen, a leading legal tech company based in Toronto, which provides machine-learning contract review for lawyers.
Peter Aprile is a tax dispute and litigation lawyer and the founder of Counter Tax Lawyers in Toronto which has built proprietary software to help its lawyers determine the best course of action to resolve tax challenges.
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After the pandemic: Redesigning how we work
Yves Faguy: You are listening to the Canadian Bar Association National Magazine.
Hello, I'm Yves Faguy, the editor-in-chief of CBA National Magazine. The big question on a lot of people's minds in the legal sector is: when the crisis of the pandemic abates, will life in law be any different? Of course, it'll be different by some measure, but will it be really different? Will digital transformation finally become a real priority? Will the appetite for adjustment and an experimentation that we're seeing forced upon the and law firms, law schools and regulators, will that continue beyond the shutdown? And how will we organize our legal workforce? Will that change at all? In this second episode of our series we'll be exploring these questions and thankfully I'm joined by two of the sharpest minds in legal innovation in Canada today. Our first guest is the co-founder and COO of a leading machine learning and legal tech company, Diligen, based in Toronto, which provides contract review for lawyers. She's Laura Van Wyngaarden, who were pleased to have with us.
Laura Van Wyngaarden: Thanks so much, Yves. Good to be here.
Yves Faguy: We're also really keen to dig into the mind of our second guest. He's a tax lawyer and a legal entrepreneur and has clearly taken the long view in terms of building his own law practice using technology, relentlessly tweaking his own processes, and adapting his methods. In 2018 he was the inaugural innovator in residence at the OBA and, until recently, co-hosted one of the best legal podcasts in my view, Building NewLaw. He's the principal at Counter Tax Lawyers; please welcome Peter Aprile.
Peter Aprile: Thanks for having me.
Yves Faguy: Let's get to it. We're about eight weeks into it – nine weeks, maybe. Tell me what we’re seeing in the legal market in terms of a willingness to take risks, try new things, experiment in the legal sector, versus where we are now. Perhaps, Laura, we could start with you.
Laura Van Wyngaarden: So I think my experience is perhaps not representative because what I spend my time doing and what a lot of my team spend their time doing is talking to law firms all around the world, talking to clients, talking to partners, who are actively adopting machine learning software, are actively changing processes, are being – So we perhaps don't see a true cross-section of, you know, law firms, legal service providers. So we really felt that there was a lot happening, a lot changing, that there were a lot of firms out there adopting this technology, changing the way they work, offering new things to their clients, very interested in legal technology. What we're seeing now, of course, is law firms out over the last few weeks having been under tremendous pressure to change their processes in terms of being able to work remotely in a very short period of time, going from perhaps all being in the office to all being remote, and needing that to function well.
So I think there's been an example for a lot of firms out there of how quickly change can happen. When there's the, you know, the real need to do so, they can change radically and quickly in ways they hadn't considered before.
So that's been very interesting to hear those stories from around the world about how firms have responded to the change.
Yves Faguy: What about you, Peter? Have you seen anything different?
Peter Aprile: Similar to Laura, actually, I feel like I live in a bubble that is counter. It's a nice warm bubble. But, yeah, so in terms of where we were before, you know, I guess it depends how long you go back. I don't think that it's any secret that innovation has not been a strong suit in our core competency in our profession in the past. I think that continues – and I found your question interesting because when you say “take risks and try new things”, which are two separate things, in my mind, and I wonder whether most people that are in our industry conflate those two things – taking risks: I don't see much if any of that. Trying new things is something, as Laura quite rightly points out, this pandemic, or the impact of this pandemic, provides an example of what might happen when a bunch of people are forced to try new things. And the remote work is such a – it's a good example in some sense because it's so obvious, and it was it was something that we were all forced to do. But, you know, it is just the tip of the iceberg, and then the question becomes: what can happen if an industry full of very smart and successful people don't wait to be forced to try something new and, instead, try something new? And my god, I can't even imagine what would happen if some folks actually took some risks.
Yves Faguy: Do you think that they might develop an appetite to take a little bit more risk?
Peter Aprile: No, no. [Laughter]
Laura Van Wyngaarden: [Laughter]
Peter Aprile: If I had to guess. No. I think that when you say take more risks, that's loaded for me because I don't think that – You know, it really comes down to what you or others perceive as a risk. I think that there is some confusion about what constitutes a risk and what constitutes just trying something new that doesn't have any significant risk attached to it. No, I don't – I don't know, and, again, we live in a bubble. But I'm not expecting widespread risk-taking, responsible risk-taking or otherwise, and I'm not anticipating a whole heap of trying new things. Do you?
Yves Faguy: Well, Laura, maybe I could put this to you this way: Do you see a change among your clients in terms of wanting to try out new things? Has this jolted them into action in any way, judging by what you've seen? And I'm not talking just about working from home; maybe incorporating different, you know, technology into how they service their clients.
Laura Van Wyngaarden: Yeah. It's a good question. And Peter, I loved your distinction between the difference between trying new things and risk, because I think another thing that is underappreciated is the risk of not trying these things. It's not just trying new things that has risks, right? But even more to your point, what we've seen is a lot of firms get very serious about technology lately, whether it's been because they've had – some firms have seen a bit of a lull in their activity and they think this is a fantastic time to really take a closer look at what technology they should be using, reassess the current technology that they may be using, get the right technology in place to be successful in future. And, you know, the working remotely factors into that. We know, you know, our tech for example is built for teams to be using from lots of different offices around the world so it works perfectly for that sort of remote work situation and so that's become more of a focus.
Yves Faguy: Peter?
Peter Aprile: Yeah, no, I love what Laura said I put my hands up when she said are you are you accurately appreciating what the risks are and, as Laura rightly points out, it's the risks of not acting and what's the impact of that. When I think about the conversations I've had before this, through the Building NewLaw podcast and then during this period, and when we talk about changes and serious conversations and serious actions, the question that immediately comes up on my mind is what makes the conversations in the last two-and-a-half months or before that serious conversations? Like, is it the tone and feeling that accompanies those? Is it the fear that's driving those conversations? So is everybody really worried in the room, and that's why it's a serious conversation? Because that's less interesting to me, and what's really interesting to me is, like, the level of commitment and the actions that are being taken.
And so, you know, in the recent past it feels like I am part of an industry that enjoys talking about this type of thing. But we're lawyers, folks, and so the question is: where is the evidence and where is the action? Like, what is the thing that I can touch or see that makes me think that there is some action behind conversations that maybe sound serious or dire or sound like people are actually going to move?
Yves Faguy: Well I mean, yeah, but, to be fair, I think there are different other – obviously people going at different speeds in the legal industry and, you know, I have heard people express a certain amount of frustration around, you know, trying to pull people along in their firms, co-workers, partners, along to adopt new ways of doing things. Some have expressed to me quite bluntly that this crisis has been a great opportunity for them to accelerate some of these changes.
Peter Aprile: Accelerate – Sorry. When you say accelerate – I'm just going to keep pushing back. Sorry.
Yves Faguy: Yeah, no, go ahead.
Peter Aprile: So, I'll just play the challenger role. So, there's two things that come up when I hear – I hear the word push or pull people, like pull people, others, and then accelerating. And so, you know, I think that that is where part of the problem lies and that idea that any of us have the ability to push or pull others, and it is, you know, what this pandemic provides space for is people to step forward on their own accord as opposed to being pulled by others, and I think that's how real – I think that's how real change happens and how adoption happens, right? It is it is the willing acting with less regard and less energy focused on pulling or pushing others and, instead, stepping forward themselves.
Laura Van Wyngaarden: And one factor that I think is going to be a big driver of adopting, you know, new technologies of change in general is law firms looking at their clients, seeing more cost sensitivity, which has been, you know, it's been a theme for a while – where we've talked about cost sensitivity in law firm clients, competition from, you know, other local service providers – the big four and others – who have a model centred around not the billable hour, around – perhaps, you know, doing processes as effectively as possible as repeatedly as possible. So that cost sensitivity was always there but I think has been enhanced by the current climate. And I think there's firms who are looking at that, seeing the sensitivity from their clients, and thinking, are we prepared to change the way we serve our clients more than we were previously?
Peter Aprile: My hypothesis is that people need to be intrinsically motivated to change. And I don't see – I am skeptical that an external factor like increasing pressure from clients to reduce fees, if that's a thing, I am skeptical if that would lead to significant change, or the change that some in this industry think it calls out for.
One of the things, Yves, is when you say, like, it's a conservative industry, that, you know, I interpret that as you saying the people that make up this industry are conservative, and so it's interesting because when everybody gets – when we when we paint everybody with that brush, which I think we do often in this industry, I think it takes away the responsibility to each of the individuals to actually take steps towards that change. There is nothing that stops, or there is very little, in reality I think that stops, most people from conducting experiments within their law firms, or reaching out to providers directly, to explore what technology products or other things might – how they might benefit them in their practices, and the only thing that stops people from doing that is themselves.
Yves Faguy: So you don't see any impediments to undertaking these kinds of initiatives among people? You don't see other impediments in the industry, whether it’s regulatory, organizational structure, what-have-you?
Peter Aprile: I think that – I see impediments in our industry. Now, the degree that those things are actually impediments is something I think – You know, I think the idea that these things are blocking us is overemphasized in most cases and it’s an inconvenient truth. If individuals in this industry took action and started to change, and started to push, regulators would change. You know? The Law Society of Ontario, when it talked about ABS and things like that, said in their report, and, frankly, to me, it's somewhat persuasive, that the regulations aren't the impediment to change that some make them out to be. I hope that there's changes that happen, I hope that there's more opening up and things like that, but I don't see anybody backing down on the basis that what the regulations say or don't say. That that's not the bigger problem. Again, it's too easy; it's too easy to blame them.
Yves Faguy: So what makes it so difficult? Actually, Laura, I mean tech has made a number of improvements, obviously. I think it's fair to say that it hasn't completely transformed the legal industry yet. From your vantage point – or has it? Am I am I wrong to state it that way? What's your take on that?
Laura Van Wyngaarden: I think we've seen new technologies change what is possible in certain domains – so, for certain types of work. So, as new technologies have become very good at doing certain types of work like contract analysis, five years, ten years ago, you were only going to be doing that that kind of work manually. If you were going to review a thousand or ten thousand contracts it was going to take you a fair amount of time. What is possible there is fundamentally different now.
Yves Faguy: So, for legal tech to succeed, in your view, you know, what do you think are the key ingredients?
Laura Van Wyngaarden: For legal tech to succeed, I think that you need to solve a problem that exists first. So, if you're creating something that does something so much better, faster, cheaper, whatever the case may be, than what existed before, then that's the foundation, and you need the willingness to do it that way, which is which is a whole other thing – which we could perhaps have a larger discussion around the willingness to change what the way it was done before. And that doesn't need to be overnight. I think that's – it's not a black-and-white thing, right? It's not necessarily going from doing it the old way to doing it the new way. There's gradations of change that people can approach and adopt it slowly over time. With the change that we see now with the pandemic, I think that's accelerated that timeline for certain types of change. Where there isn't the luxury to change slowly, in some cases, in order to remain competitive you have to change quickly; you have to be willing to be a lot more flexible and adaptive. I think that's going to be a factor.
Yves Faguy: Peter, what you built your own technological platform. I'm wondering: did you look around to see if there was something out there that could service you?
Peter Aprile: We’ve built things that are ours and we've built on top of other platforms as well, so there's kind of two kind of streams happening in the law firm right now. If you talk about the thing that we built, which is a piece of software that we call CounterMeasure, like, how did we come to build it? We tried other products on the market; they didn't fit what we wanted to do. And so we're a ridiculous group of optimists and probably just the right amount of naïve, and we said, OK, well, we want it to do this, it can't do this, well, let's build something that can do this. And then you start getting greedy and you're saying, well it doesn't do this either; let's start to do that. And then, you know, there's cursing and wasted effort and money and then eventually you start to build something that you believe is quite valuable and the people that you work with believe is quite valuable too.
So it's quite a – you know, I would imagine it's no different than how Laura builds her products, right?
Yves Faguy: And this, Peter, we talked about technology, but you say that this comes primarily from purpose. This is primarily driven from purpose – from your purpose.
Peter Aprile: I think that's what – well, I don't think. I know that's where it comes from for Counter. You know? As I said before, I think that this is, for us, this is about doing great legal work, not for something else. Us doing great legal work or a desire to great legal work doesn't serve some higher purpose; this is it and the question is: how do we get there? And everything feeds from that. So I've talked before about – Laura mentioned earlier kind of hourly rate versus flat fees, which is a, you know, it's a really easy example to talk about in the sense that the question becomes: how does billing on an hourly rate basis support me doing my best legal work, or how does a flat fee model support that? Period. How does adopting technology support me doing great legal work and how does it take away from that? Period. It's not about we, at least for us, it isn't so much about what clients want or what clients are asking for; it's about us doing our best work which, naturally, for pursuing that, will lead to all these – which hopefully will lead to all these benefits for everybody that we touch and interact with: the people that we work with; the people that we serve as clients. It just runs through everything you do – or at least everything we do.
Even the idea of, like, best legal work is almost too broad. In some sense it's: how can we conduct our best – for us, as litigators, how can we conduct our best analysis and how do we increase the efficacy of our advocacy? Like, it's that, right? And so when we talk about – so, there's a portion of our practice that we've built automation around, right? And the question is: so why do you build automation? Like, what purpose does that serve? And so the question – So it could be that that's a margin thing, right? There could be a business purpose that surrounds that. But me, at least, that's less much less attractive, if attractive at all, to how can I create space for more people to do superior analysis and be more effective advocates? That's the thing, and the rest follows, I think.
Yves Faguy: There is something else, though, which is – you know, it's one thing for, I think, a firm to develop a set of values, a culture, that turns around performing the best legal work possible. But there are other players out there; there's a whole court system; there are still regulators. There's a whole manner in which the industry is run. I mean, you know, when we talk to people who are access to justice advocates and we ask them how do we fix this problem, they will always answer: is a multi-faceted and highly complex issue. So how do we attack that? How do we sort of improve and fix our justice system without falling into this, you know, throwing up our arms in the air and saying, well, it's a multi-faceted problem and, you know, no one person can really fix it? How do we address that?
Peter Aprile: That's like the tragedy of the Commons, right? That is, you know, that is – how do we fix it? We have people like Laura in our industry stepping left or right or wherever and saying, I'm going to take one step to solve this piece, and I don't know if it's the right piece and I don't know if this is the kind of silver bullet, and it probably isn't. But of course everything is interconnected and it's a multi-faceted problem. The solution, when you boil it down, and into my way of thinking, is quite simple: it's all of us taking one step forward not knowing where we're going. And so, again, that brings me back to purpose: as long as we're all stepping towards the same purpose, we will solve it. But we can't plan it out and architect it and map it out in advance. And when you talked earlier about the people in our industry and the mind-set that underlies our industry, it's a conservative mind-set because of the nature and the education in the types of people that generally go into our industry. But it is a creative, smart group of people with maybe a better analysis of what the real risks are in stepping forward, as opposed to the perceived risks, of the risks that we use as convenient. I think this industry could step forward; I think the people in this industry could step forward.
Yves Faguy: OK. So give me your best guess on what happens to the legal market after all this ends, or after we get to the next phase of emerging from this pandemic when presumably, you know, some people will be returning to work, business will resume to a semblance of normal. What do you expect, Laura, will have changed and will be part of the new normal, so to speak?
Laura Van Wyngaarden: So, it's a very interesting question. I think we shouldn't underestimate the example of quick change that we've seen with everyone working, you know, suddenly going remote and needing to adapt to that. Having an example of quick changes is a powerful impetus for further change. So I think that example will sort of subtly shift the mind-sets of people who've undergone that change – in the direction of being willing to try to change other things.
I think that we are likely to see greater client cost sensitivity and, with that, law firms willing to look at different ways of doing things; I think that's a powerful driver. I think firms that are looking at the future and thinking how can we position ourselves, how can we change what we're doing, to ensure that we can continue to do our best work for our clients well into the future? Firms that are the most flexible, the most willing to change, have the best opportunity to thrive, I think, over the next few years.
I do think that we will see an acceleration of the adoption of certain types of technology; I think that that is what we're seeing already. We've had a spike in requests for new trials over the last two months, a spike in other types of activity, like, as you'd expect, force majeure review for, you know, people reviewing their contracts during the pandemic.
Yves Faguy: Yeah. How has your business changed?
Laura Van Wyngaarden: So, what we've seen is some areas are a little quieter; M&A activity is down in most places right now, but we've seen a big spike in other types of activity like companies reviewing their contracts for force majeure – so that's kept us very busy over the last little while. But we've continued to see a lot of – particularly after the initial sort of week or two when everyone was just trying to adapt to how much life was changing in a short space of time, we've seen renewed focus from firms over let's really focus on our technology, let's make sure that we've got the right thing in place. So I think that I have a lot of optimism around tech adoption over the next few years.
Yves Faguy: Peter, do you think it's going to be any different? Will key actors in the legal sector become a little bit more adventurous? Are we going to go back to what it once was? How do you see it?
Peter Aprile: I don't know. Can I ask Laura a question? Do you think that the length of the pandemic, do you think the longer that this goes on, increases the likelihood of tech adoption? Like does the, like, you know, does the length in which we're all working remotely continue to emphasize the need for, quote unquote, need for this adoption? You know, because it's interesting, because if we just go back to normal next month, this doesn't sit with people in the same way, like, they don't sit with it in the same way that if it goes on six months or if there's a secondary spike or something like that. Do you see that?
Laura Van Wyngaarden: Yeah, absolutely. That's a great point. I was I was thinking about that earlier, actually – that if we all went back now to, you know, how it was before, there's a much better chance that everything – the way people were thinking and doing things would revert to how it had been previously, whereas the longer we're in this new phase, where things are different, the more chance there is that a new normal is established which might include different types of doing – different ways of doing things than what we'd seen previously. So I think, absolutely, length of the disruption plays into it. And, of course, the other part is: if firms are in a position where they're needing to be more competitive, the firms that thrive are the ones that are willing to adapt the most. So I think that, Yves, I think one of the points you had was: is this going to push us in the direction of a more conservative industry or a more open industry? And I think by virtue of the fact that the firms that, you know, come through this and thrive on the other side are the ones that are willing to adapt the most; I would say that. Well, I would guess more open.
Peter Aprile: I really like what Laura said about that kind of evolution, and that's sticking with me right now. But when I look at myself, and I just think how different – again, it depends on what the timeline we're talking is; like, how far out are we looking? And I look at myself and I think how different am I going to be for this experience four years from now? I don't know. It's hard for me to say. It's hard for me to predict that the probability is high that I'm going to be significantly different. Like, I think that – and I think that I'm somebody that that is really comfortable to change, generally – really comfortable with that.
So, I don't know. Maybe I'm just in a different position in this. I really like – Laura's argument or explanation or thought makes me feel good about this. I was more pessimistic before I heard her than after.
Yves Faguy: It's hard to measure how probably we’ll all change through this, but at the same time, I think we’ve got to bear in mind that, you know, there's a clientele out there. You know? Users of our legal system: you know, the end-client in a way, you know, and how much are they going to change? And is that going to impact at all, and place any pressure on the legal sector to really sort of get its act together, in a way? Because we've been talking for years now how maybe up to 80% by some by, you know, by some estimates, 80% of legal needs go unmet. That sounds to me like a pretty unsustainable situation. Are people going to really start reacting to that finally?
Because it's not just about people, in that case, who are providers of legal services; it's the people who are receiving those services.
And so what role will they play in exercising pressure on this front?
Peter Aprile: The question I ask myself when I hear your question is: do these people have a voice now? It's one thing for people who can afford legal services now and can afford them a little less tomorrow and have their ability to put pressure on the system or to talk to lawyers or, you know. That's one group of the public. But the group of the public that you're talking about, it's a really sad – it feels like, I don't know if this is true, but it feels like a sad reality that their ability to influence is lesser. Am I optimistic that our government will focus on this issue and do anything about it? Sorry; no. What is coming out, actually, what's interesting, the only kind of signal that I see that might relate what you're talking about, if we were really stretching for some optimism, is the idea is – it seems like the government is requiring, like, for example, environmental reporting, now, for corporations in which, or companies in which, they're providing subsidies or funding. Right?
So there is something. Like, there is there is a possibility around kind of what you're thinking about but, you know, do I think we get from the environment to access – Do I think our government gets from the environment to access to justice and anything that has any teeth? No. I wouldn't predict that the probabilities is high with that.
Getting that at another way, though, just kind of thinking out loud, what is this going to do to the job market in our industry? And is that the real thing that is going to increase the number of people in our industry, the number of lawyers or paralegals in our industry, who are willing and are motivated, either through their own self-interests or through some form of altruism, to provide access to justice services? That, to me, has a greater likelihood of having an impact and it’s something that I hope occurs.
The Law Society in terms of that, the alternative business structure, the Law Society seems to be paving the way for that type of thing. There's been kind of conversations about that; it seems to be more open to that to that type of business structure and framework. And, frankly, in – if you have a group of people who cannot find different, you know, the traditional positions that are out there because they just don't exist right now in the current market, maybe that provides an opportunity for them to gain some practical experience and maybe partnering with the Law Society will see something emerge that will lead to greater access to justice. We can only hope.
Laura Van Wyngaarden: The one thing I wonder is whether law firms will continue to have the in-person presence that they have up till now. Whether they'll be maintaining their expensive real estate – I've heard several say that they're not intending to have as much real estate going forward, that they're considering giving up some of their space, you know, going forward. And then you've got a different type of organization that's not as sort of geographically bound, and I wonder how that will change the way law gets done. And I'm not sure I have the answer. Peter, do you have thoughts on this?
Peter Aprile: What came up for me with the question and then hearing Laura's response, a couple things – including, man, I have to hang around with Laura more – we –
Laura Van Wyngaarden: The thought is completely mutual, Peter. We got to do this now.
Peter Aprile: Like, so, what comes up, right? Like, when I think about, like, what's actually happening with us, like, what are we seeing, I know this: the pandemic has focused our firm in a way – Like, we're a pretty focused group. Like, we are – we have laser-sharp focus right now on what we want to do, why we want to do it, how its interconnected, and what to shed. And so we were already on that, I think, path and learning that and, like, figuring that out for ourselves, but this has accelerated that. Now, when you talk about how this changes careers and industries and things like that, it's also it's also really focused us on the people that we want to hire and who we don't want to hire. Like, our hiring criteria evolved. So at one point it was: hire the smartest people. OK. Great. Then it became: hire the smartest people that were comfortable in using technology and wanted to use it as part of their practice. OK. Now it's: hire the smartest people who are comfortable using a technology to practice and want to analyze cases in the way that we analyze cases and want to develop advocacy skills in the same way that we want develop advocacy skills. Like, so that – it's just, like, the number of people that are going to shoot out the other end of that funnel is even narrower and more targeted than it ever has been before.
The idea of how remote work changes teams and things like that is something that we think about a lot. So my wife's a designer so I kind of hear about what's happening in office-based design and what the impact of this is and studies that are now coming out in terms of how remote work is impacting – how this stage remote work is impacting people and what people anticipate on what's actually happening. What's interesting is – and, again, our experience through this pandemic is – There's two frames of thought. I used to think it's important have everybody on premise. I used to think that it was super-important for culture, super-important for mentorship. Critical. But I was always pulled because I always heard people talk about we're moving to a remote workforce and the flexibility and agility of that, and so I always questioned, and probably too much on one side of this fence, but that doesn't feel right either.
And, interestingly, I think it was Herman Miller that put out a report that was released today, that talked about Millennials specifically and the notion that they are most uncomfortable and most disrupted by this new, quote unquote, remote work world or phase, and the reason for that, which is fascinating – it's something that shows up in our practice – is they value connection, you know, in such a great and deep way, that you might not anticipate. Also, their houses are different. Right? So they're working in different environments – smaller environments, in some cases; more, you know, commotion going on. So you're working in a less-than-ideal environment when you're working remotely for some of these folks. You don't have the connection, which also means I – You know, I have a hypothesis that mentorship and learning could be doing a lot better in our law firms and in this industry generally.
So now you've just removed them from those unanticipated collisions and those unanticipated learning moments that I think are, I'm going to suspect we all find, so important to our career, and kind of made me the lawyer who I am. I used to say that when I was an articling student I used to – don't tell anybody but I felt like I learned more smoking outside with my principal at the time than I did inside the office. [Laughter]
So, like, it's going to be really – I don't know which way it's going to go, and I would imagine it's a bit of both, but I don't think either end of the spectrum is the answer, and I think, again, when we talk about what the risks are, and identifying those risks—right?—like the firm that makes the choice to shed office space or change it, like, what are you giving up? And can you quantify? You can. The question is: are you going to have the insight and the – are you going to have the attempt to quantify what is the real impact? Because, again, going back to business cases and all that, if the only impact you're looking for is a financial one, then you can quantify that quite easily, but you've just lost – like, you just haven't quantified all the other second- and third-order consequences that are going to be a result of your decision.
Yves Faguy: A friend of mine who is a partner in a firm here in Montreal, he told me very recently that he felt that those in his – those among his lawyers who were most keen on getting back to the office were actually young associates. So that somewhat confirms your theory.
Peter Aprile: So, that's interesting. So the question becomes – but I'm going to assume that they hold a lot less power, if any, in their law firms right now. So, the people that probably hold power in the law firm that you're describing are an older set who probably don't value receiving mentorship and learning in the way that they once did in their career, and, by the way, they can work in different environments. Like the question is, like, when we talk about the interconnectedness of things and I talk about purpose and I've been talking about organizational structure and culture in the past, like, the question is: who has the power to make those decisions and who's going to make that decision? And what are they giving up for the young associates? And do they have a voice and a perspective in that? And again, now that goes into law firm ownership and how profits are distributed and all that other good stuff, right?
So, like, again, the question is, like, who's at the table making these decisions and who's listening and acting based on a collective intelligence as opposed to the few?
Yves Faguy: Laura, any thoughts on that? You were talking about, you know, remote working and how this is probably going to become part of our reality.
Laura Van Wyngaarden: Mm-hmm.
Yves Faguy: But what are the pitfalls? Do you see pitfalls ahead?
Laura Van Wyngaarden: One thing Peter was saying that I really identified with was previously you were – you're looking for the smartest people but your preference is that people be able to work with you in person, and we've gone through the exact same process – where it was always we're looking for the best people; we’d prefer if they can work with us in our downtown Toronto office. And now, with everyone being remote, that matters a lot less and so, essentially, the candidate pool that where we're looking at is much bigger. And I'm trying to think about how that would impact the young lawyers that are coming out of law school now. It's a very interesting moment.
Yves Faguy: Are you – Laura, do you think you're going to have to rethink how you attract talent to your to your organization?
Laura Van Wyngaarden: I'm not sure if it's so much about attracting talent as about thinking more about having a much more distributed workforce, which we already do have people who are sort of spread over three continents and, you know, we – we've always had people who have been remote, and were very comfortable working remotely. But now with everyone remote it opens up certain possibilities. You know? We're not only looking to hire people who are in downtown Toronto; we're looking much more broadly.
Peter Aprile: Just what came up for me when you were talking was one of our experiences recently – again, I didn't anticipate this. Again, like, having people distributed across the globe and the benefits of that. But then it becomes, like, so what roles are distributed becomes another key consideration, right? So it's the smartest mind for what can be distributed and, again, we talked earlier about kind of defining that a little bit more narrowly, what the smartest mind means for that specific role.
So, you know, we've started, and it sounds like Laura has as well, starting to explore, OK, so what is essential in and what can be distributed, you know, far and wide? What has no – what role and skillset doesn't have a geographical boundary? Also, one of the other things that came up when Laura was talking, something I didn't anticipate, again, and when we talk about the spectrums of remote or in-office, one of the things that's shown up for us is people learning and training have accelerated, depending on what stage they are at in their in their career with us or relationship with us, has accelerated after being in the office for us a period of time, and then having this rug pulled under them. So, because now what's happened is they're remote and so when I talked about those collisions earlier, those collisions for learning, there is a huge benefit to them, up into a point like everything else.
And so what we've seen in in one case specifically right now is, actually, what we learned is that was a crutch, and once we remove that, once this rug has been pulled under them and they've been forced remotely, their growth has taken off. And so, you know, when there isn't somebody to ask that question to – when you just don't have that lifeline, what is the growth that's possible when not having it? And it's interesting; I thought back to myself. My principal died in my third year of practice and I remember leaving my office, walking out the door of my office, and looking down the hallway and I could see his door close at the end of hallway because he had passed and he was no longer there. And I remember thinking to myself there's nobody on the other side of that door, and so it's just you. And you know what happens? You figure it out.
And what's interesting, especially people that were hired just before this happened is, I love the development and uptick that this kind of, I don't know, forced independence, let's call it, has created. And now, again, what I'm anticipating and what I expect to happen is there's going to be, you know, peaks and valleys, you know, some in office and some out of office. But when we think of our onboarding process and our teaching process, now we're starting to play with the notion of even if we have the opportunity to have somebody in the office all day, every day, full-time, maybe we want to design a system that doesn't do that. Like, maybe we start to design a system with the intention that has the best of one system and the best of another. That's where it’s getting fun.
Yves Faguy: Yeah. That sounds like a pretty – that's a tall order right there. Because, I mean, you know, as you said, you know, that there are circumstances where people just perform better probably on site; some might perform better at different times away at home.
Peter Aprile: So, can I ask a question? When you say that's a tall order, right? Because this goes back to kind of, I think, the central point in this in terms of taking risk and trying new things, what's the tall order?
Yves Faguy: Well you're talking about designing a system of how an office is structured.
Peter Aprile: I'm talking about –
Yves Faguy: Like, how a workplace is structured, mixed up with mentorship, guidance –
Peter Aprile: But we're doing that – we are doing that now, right? We're just not doing it with intention and, arguably, we're doing it unthinkingly, right? And so the question is, like, what harm, when we talk about risks, what harm could possibly befall? And how big is that harm? If we say, you know what, for the first three months you work in the office one weekend you work out of the office the next week. And then you iterate on that. Right? Like, that's the point, is that the success or failure, you've already succeeded by trying. In the worst case scenario, like, what would be the worst case scenario? It takes an extra week of in-office work to get the person – for them to get themselves, excuse me, where they need to get to?
Yves Faguy: Maybe Laura could help us out with that, because I think she has some experience with bringing people on in a very distributed matter.
Laura Van Wyngaarden: I remember reading years ago skills for the future – it must be at least five or seven years ago – and I think one of the top ones was the ability to effectively stay connected as a remote team, and that was seen as one of the top sort of skills for the future. And I can see very much, now, how essential that is. And I think we’re all getting a crash course in that. Those organizations who are not set up to do that are learning it now and those who already had, you know, are adding to their skill level. And it does give you a lot more flexibility in terms of in terms of hiring, in terms of being able to bring on very smart people who might not be in your direct vicinity. And I think I think that's good for everyone. That's good for those people who might want to be working with you and good for organizations who are able to bring on really talented people. So it's a positive thing, for sure.
Yves Faguy: I think one of these we might be learning from this conversation is the fact of how important hiring the right talent is going to be. If we want to effect any change, if we do want to implement meaningful changes in the legal sector. One of the questions I asked Kyla Sandwith of De Novo Inc. last week was if there was one thing you would change, what would it be? And she said, you know, it's a tough question but, really, it's got to happen in the law schools. It's how we form the law grads because, you know, that's where it really has to change, because they're the ones who are going to be leading all these initiatives in the coming years. Let me take that and ask, you, you know, this question. What would you do to – what would you change about, you know, the education system in law to form future legal practitioners, professionals, of all types in the industry?
Laura Van Wyngaarden: That’s a great question. One component I think that is important is the ability to be able to use legal technology well, to use it knowledgeably, to know what's out there, and to be able to use it well, which I think is absolutely just one of the skills you need to do to do the legal work of the future – so the tech literacy is important. But beyond that I think what remains important is the ability to think creatively, to be able to come with new ways, new solutions of – new ways of doing things that don't necessarily rely on the old structure, to be able to think through, this is the outcome we want and how – are there other ways we could get there if we if we weren't looking at the way it's done now? I think that remains the core of what's important and I'm not sure exactly how we get there or even the extent of which we're getting there now, but I think that's got to be central.
Yves Faguy: So, look precedent but not too much. Peter, what would you ask of our legal educators?
Peter Aprile: Change admissions.
Yves Faguy: How so?
Peter Aprile: Like, when we talk about – it's, again, it's so – it's almost amusing because it feels like, in some sense, it’s the solution to the problem is always the same. It is – to me, when I think about it, it's, again, what Laura said and what I mentioned earlier and what you said is: the talent that you hire is the most important thing, right? That's nothing ground-breaking we've uncovered here. Maybe we're defining it better and all that other good stuff. So why is that any different for law schools? The talent that they hire, quote unquote, the students that they admit, is going to produce is, it seems to me, to produce the greatest likelihood of change in the industry. And when we talk about, you know, forming them when they're in, like, if we are putting in the same input into the system, is it – how much difference is it going to make if you try to form them differently once it's in there?
You know, the idea that – I wonder the level of collective intelligence in our industry and I, like, I do because, you know, if you put a bunch of people into a system that all think the same way that isn't collective intelligence; that's a lot of people that think the same way. But if you change the people that you put in the industry and make them think differently, then you have the opportunity for collective intelligence. And so I don't know how but all I know is I am skeptical about the criteria that they use to admit most students into law school right now and until that changes –
Yves Faguy: Well I'm going to give you the last word, Peter, on that one. Laura Van Wyngaarden of Diligen, Peter Aprile, thank you very much for joining us on this podcast today. I appreciate you both sharing your views and taking the time to speak with us. I've been talking with Laura Van Wyngaarden and Peter Aprile. Thanks, and join us for the next episode.
Peter Aprile: Thank you.
Laura Van Wyngaarden: Thanks so much.
Yves Faguy:[Music] We want to hear your views about what changes need to happen in our justice system and in the legal profession. Where do you think the key players need to focus their energies, and how do you suggest we encourage more experimentation in the legal sector? Let us know on Twitter at cbanatmag, and on Facebook. You can hear this podcast and others on our CBA channel, The Every Lawyer on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher. Wherever you listen to the podcasts, subscribe to receive notifications for new episodes. And to hear us in French, listen to our Juriste Branché podcasts. [Music]