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How tech advancements are changing law practice, why it must continue

Thursday, June 03, 2021 @ 11:13 AM | By Kelly Friedman, John Godber and Andrew Terrett

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Andrew Terrett
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced lawyers around the world to speed up the switch to digital, whether in signing legal documents electronically or holding virtual court hearings. Many law firms have been taking steps to improve internal processes, incentivize efficiency and apply new ways of doing business that maximize value. Combined with a growing acceptance of international practices, the pandemic continues to shape the Canadian legal landscape in many ways, including virtual disputes, digital case law and e-discovery, among other areas.

Virtual disputes

Among some of the most interesting examples of technology-driven enhancements in our profession is virtual dispute resolution.

Calls to modernize court rules to facilitate fair, just and speedy resolutions predate the pandemic, but the pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures catalyzed widespread technological innovation in dispute resolution. Online dispute resolution has been growing in popularity, as has the use of electronic presentation of evidence in litigation. Many trials have already been conducted in a paperless, or near paperless, manner.

In August 2020, the Ontario Superior Court implemented a secure, cloud-based e-hearing platform that allows litigators to upload, store, review, search, mark up, share and present court documents virtually. Once materials are filed in the traditional way according to the rules of the court, electronic copies are uploaded to the platform, which are then accessible to all participants before and during a court proceeding. Although still in the pilot stage, the use of this technology has been expanded to include Toronto Civil Court, Divisional Court, some Toronto family and Toronto criminal cases, with provincewide expansion intended to continue throughout spring and summer of 2021.

This digital transformation means that lawyers are spending less time organizing documents in preparation for trial, and both the lawyers and the courts minimize the risk that records will be unavailable for the hearing. Indeed, paperless trials are more efficient, affordable and sustainable for the environment, and soon the image of lawyers toting around luggage-sized briefcases exploding with legal documents will begin to fade.

Going forward, filing practices will continue to shift to online platforms; electronic collection and presentation of evidence will gain more traction; and telephone and videoconferencing will shift from a pandemic-related necessity to an established practice in litigation, mediation and arbitration.

Digitalization of case law

Similar to paperless trials, the storage and digitalization of case law, statutes and regulations is a long-awaited legal innovation that increases proficiency of the practice. Now, the public has access to digitized case law from prestigious sources such as the University of Toronto’s Bora Laskin law library. Advancements such as this allow for tech companies to collect and store legal information and statistics. This digitalization facilitates consumers’ access to valuable information that previously would have to be provided by a lawyer. Organizations are also permitting the legal tech community to build off their content and technology by publishing open application programming interfaces.

Legal sites have also been offering chatbot technology. Rather than speaking directly to a lawyer, consumers are communicating with chatbots that have been programmed with a plethora of legal information and can answer simple questions.

Manually searching through casebooks, legal citation guides and other law books is becoming a thing of the past. Law firms are using legal research databases to find relevant information faster. These databases have begun to integrate information from non-legal articles and webpages, making a wider range of sources available.

E-discovery, artificial intelligence

For many years now, the necessity of dealing with electronic evidence in the context of disputes has pushed the legal profession, kicking and screaming some would argue, to use technology for document review. For many, e-discovery has simply meant taking a traditional paper process and using computer screens to review documents. During the pandemic, we have seen a greater push for e-discovery services in the cloud, because no IT staff is needed at the law firm to manage on premises applications. We have also seen a greater acceptance of the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to facilitate document review and analysis as lawyers have become more comfortable relying on technology to get their work done.       

Indeed, it has become widely accepted that the most effective and cost-efficient way to prepare for discoveries and hearings is with the combination of legal judgment, advanced analytics and technological proficiency to surface the most pertinent information in a much shorter time frame.

Often building on e-discovery technology, applications have emerged to review and adjust legal contracts. With machine learning, for example, not only can technology “learn” to differentiate relevant from irrelevant documents for e-discovery, it can extract and organize crucial information from contracts and assist with drafting. When done traditionally, even contracts that may not require significant negotiation can present operational challenges, especially when short timelines are a factor. Law firms such as BLG are leveraging other machine learning technology to reduce time spent on documentation, accelerate turn-around time, improve accuracy and provide clients with refined cost certainty.

Legal technology is rapidly changing the legal industry and revolutionizing the justice system in Canada. Recent announcements by the law societies of B.C. and Ontario to establish so-called “legal innovation regulatory sandboxes” are to be applauded. The adoption of modern technologies whether AI machine learning, chatbots or robotic process automation by the justice system has been highly anticipated and, for the most part, will be welcomed with open arms. Although Canada has come a long way in implementing these technologies, this is just the beginning.

If there is anything we have learned over the past year, it’s that advancements in services and widespread adoption of advanced technology are essential. We can see how innovations are increasing efficiency, lowering cost and giving lawyers more bandwidth to do what they do best: win cases.

Kelly Friedman is an experienced litigator at BLG with unique expertise in data management issues, including e-discovery, cybersecurity and privacy. She has appeared before administrative bodies such as the Ontario Energy Board, all levels of court in Ontario and the Supreme Court of Canada. John Godber specializes in corporate law at BLG with an emphasis on mergers and acquisitions and large scale infrastructure projects. He is also BLG’s client innovation partner. Andrew Terrett is BLG’s s national director, digital innovation. A qualified solicitor (England and Wales) he holds a lean Six Sigma Black Belt.

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