Think back. It’s the end of the year in 2010. President Barack Obama has been in the White House for two years after winning the election in November 2008. Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister of Canada since 2006. And, in May of 2010, David Cameron became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Donald Trump is, at best, a reality TV peculiarity; we have never heard of Brexit; and Justin Trudeau is still years away from following in his father’s footsteps to be a Canadian Prime Minister. For 86 days a BP drilling platform gushed an uncontrolled flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. 33 miners were stuck deep underground in Chile and all of them were miraculously saved. A volcano named Eyjafjallajokull(and that you’d never heard of and can never pronounce, unless you grew up in Iceland) blew its top in Iceland, stranding millions of travelers on either side of the Atlantic. The San Francisco Giants won the World Series, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, Spain beat the Netherlands in the World Cup.
And in this mix, what was happening in tech? The iPhone was barely three years old. The Blackberry was on the decline. SaaS and Cloud-anything was not yet mainstream and alternative models of law firms and legal delivery were barely on the horizon. To be clear, there were pockets of people building, planning and organizing but the state of legal industry in 2010 was nowhere near where it is today.
It was in this environment that I decided to build and launch Conduit Law, a firm that I would ultimately start about 13 months later, in January 2012.
Law practice management in 2010 was, simply put, still parked in an earlier time with the overwhelming majority of existing firms and new firms buying legacy systems to power their businesses and looking at the lessons of yesteryear.
The driving force behind the concept propelling Conduit Law was the idea that, in the legal industry, as a knowledge-based business, we should be liberated from both time and place. Put another way, lawyers use their experience and knowledge to solve problems for clients, and to solve these problems we did not need to have big, fancy and expensive offices in downtown towers and we did not need software and hardware solutions that would tie us to those offices.
What we needed was mobile tech, 24-7 online access, digital delivery and the freedom to service clients wherever and whenever was best for the client.
With this in mind, I thought of famous urbanist and innovator Jane Jacobs’ poweful quote, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” And with Jane’s words echoing in my mind, I set off to find the right spot to stake our place in this business. I found an old loft warehouse on King West, The Eclipse Whitewear Building, in a neighbourhood dating to the 19thcentury, and started the hard work of bringing these ideas to life.
In those years, lawyers spent all of their time explaining why the Cloud was insecure and couldn’t be used, terrifying anybody who would stop to listen with dark stories of the US Patriot Act and the need for domestic server-farms. I never doubted the authenticity of their fervour, or the need to pay attention to cyber-security in all respects, but it rang hollow to me that the legal industry would simply let these developments in mobile computing technology pass us by because we couldn’t get the security question right.
And so I looked for SaaS solutions that would help bring Conduit Law to life. SaaS providers such as Clio and Lexicata offered a pay-as-you-go solution that was scalable, designed for lawyers, and robust enough to satisfy our pickiest clients.
In fact, shortly after launching Conduit Law we were retained by one of Canada’s biggest banks. In addition to all of the usual onboarding one might expect, I was told that the bank would conduct its own security audit on our IT system. My heart skipped a beat. I was confident with our systems, but would they pass the test from this major institution? The audit was scheduled, the meetings were organized, the details were discussed, due diligence was duly compete and then we had our response from the bank’s IT auditor.
Three words that I will never forget: “Good to go.”
Now that I had launched Conduit Law, put together a small office in a warehouse to stake our place in the city, and a fully mobile SaaS solution to operate the firm that had passed a security audit by the bank, I was confident that we could grow the business.
And we did grow for several years. Client by client. Lawyer by lawyer. File by file. Conduit Law began to grow. And then the Big4 came knocking.
In 2016 we agreed to sell the Conduit Law business to Deloitte Canada. That’s a bigger story for another time.
Suffice it to say, we enjoyed our brief time at Deloitte but, ultimately, 18 months later I took Conduit Law back and we left the Big4. The business of law is growing so quickly, evolving so rapidly, changing from week-to-week, that it became clear to me that Conduit Law was best suited as an independent firm. And so we left.
If the earlier phase of Conduit Law was our start up phase, post-Deloitte became our re-start up phase. Client by client. Lawyer by lawyer. File by file. Conduit Law began to grow, again. We were back in business.
What was very interesting in 2018 is that all of the gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over SaaS solutions and virtual law firms that was so prevalent in the 2010 – 2012 time frame, had completely evaporated.
In 2010, when discussing a virtual law firm and a SaaS solution like Clio with other lawyers, the most common question was “Why would you do that?”
By 2018, that question had changed and even lawyers (particularly younger lawyers) would simply ask “Why wouldn’t you do that?” The assumption had been flipped and now the default solution for new firms is SaaS, is mobile, is digital, is paperless and is a move way from the large, granite, marble and mahogany edifices that had been built for a previous generation.
What do I know about the future? Not sure, other than to say two things:
1. There is a strong and resistant element of our profession that simply refuses to acknowledge the fact that the world is changing at a dramatically rapid pace and this change will affect the business and practice of law. These are people who are living in the tradition of the true Luddites and they will not be convinced otherwise. Avoid the recalcitrant, backward-looking, foot-dragging cynics and nattering nabobs of negativity (thank you William Safire) at all costs.
2. Change is here today and more change is coming. With every day, week, month, there are changes happening in our profession and in the broader economy that have an impact on our clients and on our business.
Reading this article, I have no idea whether I can offer anything of value to the world of law practice management. What I do know is that if you are in the first category I described, you can comfortably remain in what is a mainstream position that is shrinking steadily and inexorably and ride your comfort into future irrelevance. Law is not immune from the forces that are affecting our society.
If you are in the latter category, keep your eyes and ears open. Stay true to the oath you swore to the bar or law society, but remember that the future is in front of us and keep moving forward.
NOTE: I do not work for any company mentioned here, other than Conduit Law, and mentions of any services or products of companies are not endorsements. They work for us. They might also work for you. Do your own homework.
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