Founders saw an opportunity in providing straightforward info that did not require legal advice
Working in big-law knowledge management, Lesha Van Der Bij and Gayle Wadden believed there was a lot of value in delivering to businesses comprehensive, accurate and timely information about statutes and regulations, in an accessible and easily digestible format.
They founded Optimize Legal and began with two products: Optimize Pensions, a tool for pension advisors, and Optimize Employment, a tool for lawyers. Their most recent creation is Optimize Compliance, a tool for HR professionals. They have been working out of the Legal Innovation Zone, at Ryerson University, since 2019.
In their two-decades-long legal practices at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, Van Der Bij and Wadden saw a process play out repeatedly which they thought could be automated.
A client would ask about their obligations under, for example, the Employment Standards Act, for whichever provinces in which their businesses operate. Typically, a junior lawyer would be tasked with drawing up an Excel spreadsheet with information from the legislation and the client would be charged an hourly rate.
“A lot of that, it just exists in legislation,” says Wadden. “For people that are sophisticated enough, you can go, and you can look, and you can find it yourself. What makes it hard is staying on top of it, because it changes all the time, and knowing that you've covered everything, because you've got obligations in the Act and in regulations and kind of spread throughout.”
“This isn't high-value legal information. It's not legal advice, in any way… There was a better way to do it. And a key part was scaling it.”
“There was an opportunity to provide that legal information directly to employers on a subscription basis,” says Van Der Bij. “So that they could get a lot of the answers themselves and then call the law firm when they needed legal advice.”
As the federal and provincial governments introduce and pass bills which change the laws that govern workplaces, Optimize Compliance has automated trackers which pull the information directly into the system and report the changes to subscribers. Currently Optimize Compliance covers six areas of workplace law: accessibility, employment standards, health and safety, human rights, pay equity and privacy.
To answer a particular legal question, users would first select an area of law, then a topic – for example, leaves of absence – then a sub-topic – such as bereavement leave – and then a jurisdiction. The system then provides plain-language summaries that explain what an employer needs to know about their obligations in providing bereavement leave to employees, wherever they are in Canada.
“It's not super hard to figure out that bereavement leave, federally, is five days, but some things can be a little bit trickier. Like, who's a family member that would qualify for this?” says Van Der Bij.
When it comes to legal questions concerning topics such as termination of employment, users will come across a red warning box. When employers are firing an employee, it is not only the legislation at play, but caselaw as well. The warning indicates that the user should seek legal advice.
The system also has a cross-Canada comparison feature which shows the requirements jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction.
“It makes it easy for employers that have employees across the country,” she says. “Which is going to be more employers than they realize, because with more and more people potentially working from home, if they stick with that and then they go and move around the country, they could end up finding out that they've become a multi-jurisdictional employer.”