President’s Message: There’s no turning back now

  • August 26, 2020
  • Colin Stevenson

A recent tweet that characterized the OBA as ‘woke’ got me thinking. Since being coopted by the mainstream, that term is not the compliment it once was – suggesting now a kind of performative social activism and levelled all too often with the same kind of eye roll as ‘political correctness’ was back in the nineties. But, given that there is nothing fashionable or faux about the OBA’s longstanding, entrenched, and widely embraced efforts to advance equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the profession, I chose to take this as a sign that we are doing something right. In today’s world, one cannot choose to bury one’s head in the sand: we must instead open our eyes to the vital need for change. The OBA  has for some years seen how we can do better and that we need to change the status quo in the justice sector.

The OBA has a long history of leading the charge on EDI, lawyer mental health and wellness, access to justice and innovation, but in this game-changing year, our work in these areas has converged with greater impact than ever before. When I introduced my Innovation mandate at the outset of my presidency, I did so knowing that the OBA had the expertise, experience and appetite to bring strategic focus to this imperative to modernize or be left behind in a competitive legal marketplace. It was only by enhancing and updating technology in law offices, in courts, and by improving processes, that we could streamline our practices, improve service delivery and maintain a competitive advantage.

We started with an ambitious goal on innovation: one that in March gained greater urgency than anyone could have predicted. I’m proud to say that in this first year of a five-year Innovation plan, the OBA has delivered on our promise more meaningfully, creatively and critically than even I envisioned.

We knew we could not usher in wholesale change alone; it would require buy-in from partners and stakeholders, and gathering insight from other innovation experts and champions.

We lobbied the Ontario Government to modernize the courts, providing the lawyer’s perspective on the technology and approaches that would be most effective. We advocated for increased access to justice, including speaking up for the use of an online system like the BC Civil Resolution Tribunal in this province.

We appointed the Legal Innovation Zone at Ryerson, a world-renowned legal technology hub, as our Innovator-in-Residence, to bring global intelligence to our innovation efforts. I chaired a monthly Managing Partners Roundtable to explore everything from the evolution of office space and emerging practice areas to wellness and diversity developments. And, under the leadership of Past-President Lynne Vicars, the OBA’s Technology Committee began producing videos to showcase cutting-edge legal tech.

We were laying the groundwork and making strides, but perhaps ironically, it took an unprecedented shutdown for progress to hit hyper-speed. With business as usual no longer an option, the OBA stepped up, as did the courts and government. So much transpired in such a short period that to encapsulate the scope and rate of modernization is all but impossible, but among our key undertakings, the OBA has:

  • Provided Zoom conferencing to the SCJ to allow it to provide emergency services while it very quickly modernized. (More than 300 judges trained on how to use OBA Virtual Courtrooms, and we have provided more than 324 Virtual Courtrooms across all three levels of the Court in Ontario.)
  • Promoted video conferencing not only in the courts but also for firm and client meetings and arbitrations and mediations. (More than 600 meetings have been held in OBA Virtual Courtrooms to date.)
  • Co-chaired a task force that produced best practices for electronic hearings, which complements the host of essential remote practice resources the OBA has developed for lawyers.
  • Encouraged the Ontario Government to support the courts and the profession, with provisions for the remote commissioning of affidavits and the remote witnessing of wills among other initiatives.
  • Pivoted our monthly Managing Partner Roundtables to deal with the pandemic-related issues, including remote working, video conferencing, support and security, and later, to deal with return-to-work issues, like best practices, office space and safety and social distancing measures.
  • Advocated strongly for an online tool where litigation searches can be performed quickly and efficiently. (Just last week Attorney General Doug Downey thanked the OBA as MAG rolled out a new online search service to provide access to information about criminal and civil court cases that can currently only be obtained in-person at courthouses.)

With court reopening, in-person sessions have resumed, but there will be no return to time-wasting practices like in-person case conferences and schedules. The e-filing we have long promoted has dramatically accelerated, one of many processes borne of necessity but adopted permanently by virtue of efficiency. We’ve seen the rewards –  to our daily work lives, to the justice sector, to the public – that innovation brings, and there’s no going back. The technological innovation we’ve set in motion will continue, its widespread and rapid adoption serving as a silver lining in an extremely difficult year.

As I reflect on this remarkable year, I marvel not only at the technological modernization of a sector, but at the trailblazing spirit, unparalleled generosity and innovative thinking of the OBA community that helped spark it. The members who contributed to developing a record number of high-priority CPD programs over a matter of five months. The members who supported each other’s mental health and joined each other daily, virtually, for the OBA’s Mindful Moment. The members who sought answers through the OBA’s Real-time Solutions so we could solicit and provide direction to all. The members whose empathy and diverse experience broaden our understanding of how changes in the sector affect the most vulnerable.

OBA members are alive to possibilities and inspired to bring about progress that best serves the cause of justice. This collective will to evolve has made a positive difference in the legal profession in a year that few of us will ever forget.