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Vancouver law firms competing for technology edge

Artificial intelligence, digitization and video appearances help reduce billable hours
Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP’s Vancouver managing partner Mark Longobelieves his firm’s AI capabilities make it more competitive | Chung Chow

Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI), electronic documents and video-conferencing technology have reduced lawyers’ billable hours, making their services more affordable for clients.

Some lawyers, however, believe inefficiencies remain.

Video-conferencing software from Zoom Video Communications Inc. (Nasdaq:ZM) and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) transformed work across society during the pandemic.

Courtrooms at Vancouver’s law courts installed large video screens and lawyers are sometimes allowed to appear via video link.

A few lawyers told BIV, however, that they think the courts could be more proactive in allowing legal teams and witnesses to appear via video conferencing software.

Courts allow lawyers to appear for chambers applications, but lawyers are expected to appear in person for standard BC Supreme Court cases.

“It is incredibly inefficient,” Acumen Law Corp. lawyer Kyla Lee told BIV.

“It ends up costing clients money because they have to pay for the lawyer to come to court. Even if it’s just the cost of parking at the courthouse, it’s an unnecessary expense.”

Lee has clients across B.C., and she said that if she needs to appear in person in Fort St. John, it adds $2,000 to her client’s bill.

Lawyers can request to appear in court remotely and those requests may be approved, the BC Supreme Court and BC Court of Appeal told BIV in an email.

“The Criminal Code requires that certain criminal proceedings be conducted in person,” the BC Supreme Court’s statement said. “In all trials – civil, family and criminal – with viva voce [oral] testimony, there are concerns that judges may find it more difficult to assess witness credibility by video.”

Some law firms do not want lawyers to work from home, said Smith Legal Search principal and legal recruiter Warren Smith.

One lawyer in Vancouver at a major Canadian law firm wanted to move to Vancouver Island and work remotely, according to Smith. The lawyer’s firm balked at that arrangement.

Smith then helped the lawyer find work at a firm that would allow remote work, he said.

“Allowing remote work was the clincher in making that career move happen,” Smith said.

“There’s certainly evidence that people are willing to change employers if the company or the law firm they’re working at isn’t willing to accommodate [working remotely].”

Other technology that helps lawyers work more efficiently is being embraced.

Harper Grey LLP managing partner Jonathan Meadows called technology a double-edged sword. Decades ago, before email, there were far fewer documents that lawyers needed to disclose in court.

The proliferation of messaging platforms has exponentially increased the number of documents and that has necessitated AI platforms to sort and understand content, Meadows said.

“If firms have not been looking at AI in the past, they’re behind the curve,” Meadows added.

“Everybody’s looking at it, and some are employing it to a more or lesser degree.”

Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP has its own subsidiary, Osler Works – Transactional, which uses AI and assists the firm’s offices across Canada and in New York, the firm’s Vancouver managing partner Mark Longo told BIV.

“Kira Systems is one of the tools that we have adopted, and it allows us to do due diligence using machine learning to evaluate certain clauses in contracts,” he said.

“That often used to take hundreds of hours for an articling student or a junior lawyer to sift through, so it does end up saving money for the clients, and it allows us to deliver the service more efficiently.”

The head of Osler Works – Transactional, Natalie Munroe, explained to BIV how AI can be used before a merger or acquisition completes. Executives at the acquiring firm will want to ensure that the target company’s supplier contracts do not contain clauses that say that the contracts need to be renegotiated in the event of a corporate sale, she said.

AI can zip through those contracts and provide a prompt answer as to whether that is the case, she added.

Nolan Hurlburt, director of knowledge and legal operations for Dentons Canada LLP, told BIV that he expects law firms to use AI more frequently.

“Where we see AI starting to achieve maturity is in the document-review space or e-discovery space,” he said. “That’s the process, typically in litigation or investigations, where legal teams are reviewing thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of emails and other business documents.”

Lawyers train AI to distinguish which documents are relevant and that helps them arrive at decisions faster, he said.

An emerging use for AI could also be to sift through court judgments to find relevant cases that could be used by lawyers when developing legal strategies.

A separate technology making legal work significantly more efficient is electronic-document management and signing.

Dentons, Osler and other firms use Toronto-based Closing Folders Inc. to organize and manage documents. That software is often integrated with San Francisco-based DocuSign Inc. (Nasdaq:DOCU).

“There’s automatic uploads of agreements,” Longo said.

“We’re collecting all the signatures electronically, and that leads to a quicker delivery of service.” •

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