Lawyers "disconnect to connect" at annual Fireside Conference

Legal Innovation Summit in rural Ontario draws practitioners to a non-wired weekend

Fernando Garcia

There can be no better tagline to the fifth annual Fireside Conference – a retreat for entrepreneurs and start-ups, among others -- than “Disconnect to Connect.” As I drove closer and closer to Fireside’s Legal Innovation Summit at Camp Walden, near Algonquin Provincial Park in northern Ontario, the signal bars on my cellphone slowly disappeared one by one. Before I knew it, I was left with the dreaded no-service warning.

Arriving in the pitch dark, late on a Thursday night in early September, I did not know what to expect until – to borrow from a great song – “up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light.” There, in front of my eyes, stood well over 300 conference participants, drinks and food in hand, illuminated by the fire rather than cellphones, speaking and enjoying each other’s company.

The cool September air was no match for the warmth we immediately felt toward one another. I have been to many legal conferences, but as I unfurled my sleeping bag in a cabin surrounded by over a dozen other wide-eyed participants, it was immediately clear that this would be a different experience altogether.

As I came to learn, the legal summit was one of four such minicamp conferences taking place over three days in the same campground. While I was there for the Legal Innovation Summit, all camp facilities were shared between the legal, start-up, cannabis, and cryptocurrency conferences.

Participants from all backgrounds wandered in and out of informative and -- dare I say it -- fun sessions. A participant could have breakfast, attend a legal session in the morning, go water skiing for an hour, then listen to a motivating C-suite professional speaker talk of branding and building an ethical corporation, have lunch, then listen to some start-up pitches, and end the afternoon enjoying a joint-rolling or safe-picking session (yes, you read that right).

Spread this out over three days, add some music, food and one of the largest African drum circles I have ever seen (still have the video to show it), and you can see why this was a unique and incredible conference.

The Legal Innovation Summit was lead by Sean Bernstein and Mitch Kowalski, who need no introduction to anyone following legal innovation in Canada. In attendance was a “who’s who” of legal practitioners from different practice areas, including in-house, private practice, legal service and legal tech, academia and law schools. We are used to seeing social media posts from these colleagues or even quickly saying hello at other events or conferences. But this was more. It was deeper. It was personal. It was an opportunity to spend three full days talking about law, legal innovation and getting to know each other in ways impossible to do in our busy day-to-day lives.

“It’s amazing how changing the external environment can provide new perspectives on how to approach problems and solutions in the legal space,” Bernstein said of the summit. “Collaboration and connection are fundamental building blocks to helping our industry grow.

“Throughout the weekend, I had some of the deepest professional conversations with a beer in my hand and my feet in the lake,” he quipped. “Lawyers can be a lot of fun, too!”

Kowalski commented that “the Legal Innovation Summit has potential to be one of the premier legal conferences. It’s both original and beautiful in its simplicity. Name me one adult who doesn’t want to go back to summer camp!”

Throughout the weekend, I spoke at two sessions on familiar topics: “Legal Professional of Today, Tomorrow and Beyond: Necessary Skill Sets and Knowledge”; and, “The Value Proposition: Finding the Holy Grail of a Lawyer/Client Relationship.”

I discussed concepts such as the T-shaped lawyer, what in-house counsel look for in external counsel, and, generally, the future of our profession. What was different was the level of details and questions we were able to get into during and after the session, as speakers did not have to rush out to take a call or check their emails. The “no connectivity,” no disruption reality created the perfect space to take a deep dive into these and other topical matters. Once the formal sessions concluded, we were able to dig deeper into these topics sitting around a campfire in the wilderness with guitar music playing in the background.

While we did not solve all of the complex problems affecting our profession, we did initiate an important dialogue. We learned that by unplugging and listening to each other, by asking questions, and by sharing experiences, we are better able to work together and to understand each other’s points of views.

This was, I hope, just the first of many conversations at Camp Walden. It’s safe to say that for the legal profession, the Legal Innovation Summit at Camp Walden is anything but business as usual.

See you in 2020!

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