The collab, located on the 27th floor of the firm’s offices on Bay Street, is the first of its kind in the firm, with others planned for Europe and Asia Pacific.
The idea is to bring in academics from nearby universities, as well as business and technology professionals and those involved in design thinking to work together on addressing challenges “at the intersection of business, law and technology.”
“We’ll have lots of different actors in the co-creation of new ideas around client issues and business issues that have a legal ramification,” said global chairman Paul Rawlinson. “It’s an R&D approach that law firms really haven’t embraced yet.”
He says Toronto is a “natural choice” because of the talent available in the city.
“It has a sort of new Silicon Valley feel,” he said. “It has the right talent.”
IBM Canada will be one of the first Whitespace collab partners along with several academic institutions such as the University of Toronto iSchool, University of Waterloo Problem Lab and York University’s Schulich School of Business.
Theo Ling, member of the innovation committee and principal of the Whitespace Collab in Toronto, says the space will be used to explore ways the firm can be a better partner for clients.
Over the last few years, the firm has added data analysts and systems engineers to its roster to provide a more dynamic team to address client problems.
Rawlinson was on hand last week for the opening of the centre that will bring together the firm’s lawyers, academics, researchers and other “community members” to provide “fresh perspectives” and reimagine how to consider complex issues such as data privacy, smart cities and other data-related challenges. But he says that doesn’t mean immediately embracing certain tools such as artificial intelligence.
“There is a lot of huff and puff in the market about law firms getting artificial intelligence and machine learning and so forth,” said Rawlinson. “I wouldn’t say it’s artificial intelligence yet — it’s more machine learning automation. We’re systematically introducing machine learning technology to do the basic due diligence on M&A transactions and so forth.”
The firm’s philosophy is that innovation has three strands — the first is to get more efficient in how it approaches matters with project management, alternative pricing and using its Belfast and Manila offices for certain work such as document review, and getting the right level of person on jobs and adopting the technology available today.
“Phase two, which is where we are with the innovation lab, is to do more than that and re-engineer our services,” said Rawlinson. “We’ve had a few pilot projects with a design thinking firm where they give us a road map and help us approach clients in an area and come back and create a response to that need with a design thinking approach.”
In the more medium to longer term — two to four years out — that’s when Rawlinson says he sees artificial intelligence coming into play.
“We are talking to startups and people designing that technology with a view potentially to investing, acquiring or licensing to make sure we know when and how to make a move to bring it in-house or license for us to use,” he said.
Rawlinson said the firm’s client strategy is designed to be wrapped around an industry focus — understanding an industry within the context of their competitive position in an industry.
“It’s amazing that law firms in general haven’t really embraced the notion of really listening to clients instead of pushing their own practice areas,” he said. “I think clients need to know what you have in the locker, but what they’re more interested in talking about, and more likely to select a law firm for, is an ability to listen to them and to go back to basics and re-engineer the service offering around pulling together teams of people that suit that need.”