Tech support: law firms lining up to take advantage of tech boom

“Technology has no boundaries. Everything either is touched by it or will be in the future.”

Tech support: law firms lining up to take advantage of tech boom

Canada’s tech sector is booming, and law firms of all shapes and sizes are lining up to take advantage.

In its recent tech talent survey, commercial real estate and investment company CBRE placed four Canadian cities in its top 25 North American markets, crediting cost-efficient office space and comparatively welcoming immigration policies for the list’s high Canadian content.

Toronto, whose record-high fourth place was sealed by a 14-per-cent boost in tech jobs that made it the fastest-growing hub on the list for the second year running, was also joined by Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver.

“Tech is a key sector for us,” says Viona Duncan, co-chairperson of the global tech practice group at international law firm Gowling WLG.

Still, she says, the all-encompassing nature of technology makes her client base a hard one to pin down.

The startup-rich environment of Duncan’s Waterloo, Ont. base is perfect for finding clients taking their first steps in cutting-edge industries empowered by advances in artificial intelligence, blockchain and crypto-currency. But the firm also caters to more traditional, old-world powerhouses venturing into new technological waters or dealing with the privacy and cybersecurity issues that come with them.

“Technology has no boundaries. Everything either is touched by it or will be in the future,” says Duncan. As a result, her practice group is among the most integrated at Gowlings.

“It’s unique in the sense that we interact with probably every other practice group and industry sector. We’re dealing with lawyers across the firm, nationally and internationally,” Duncan says. “Employment lawyers need help with issues posed by artificial intelligence in recruitment; we might be dealing with people in the automotive law group on driverless cars or helping the financial services group with fintech matters for banks.”

According to Duncan, the common thread running through the tech group’s diverse collection of clients is the break-neck pace of change they’re all dealing with.

“Our job is to keep up with what’s happening and relieve some of the pressure on our clients by seamlessly servicing them,” she says.

Calgary lawyer Erika Carrasco says the law surrounding drones offers a typical example of the challenges of working in such a fast-developing area.

“When I started, there were really no regulations relating specifically to drones,” she says.

Instead, when she litigated in 2016 and then successfully appealed Alberta’s first criminal conviction involving an unmanned aerial vehicle, Transport Canada categorized them in a similar way to kites and model aircraft.

Less than three years later, “it’s a completely different landscape,” says Carrasco, noting that a series of interim measures and regulatory amendments are due to culminate this June with the enactment of detailed rules distinguishing between basic and advanced drone operations and setting out fines and potential jail time for violators.

Inspired by her own experience, Carrasco, a partner at Alberta full-service outfit Field Law, led the development of a broader emerging technology practice group, focused on cyber-liability, autonomous vehicles and internet law, in addition to drones. She says her partners needed little convincing to support the group as one of the firm’s key strategic initiatives.

“I realized there was big demand out there,” Carrasco says. “And there didn’t seem to be many firms in Canada offering a comprehensive service to clients. This felt like a good way to bring a good, solid range of technology law-related services to them, rather than acting on a case-by-case basis.”

In addition, the firm remains open to embracing and adding new specialties to its list of emerging technologies.

“The law moves slower than the industries themselves, and because innovators are prepared to move on regardless of where the law stands, it’s almost more important to understand where everyone is heading, by having your finger on the pulse of stakeholders,” Carrasco says. “It’s challenging. But then, that’s part of the reason why I like it so much.”

In Montreal, litigation partner Neil Oberman at Spiegel Sohmer says the entrepreneurial nature of his clients in the city’s thriving tech space means he frequently treads a fine line between being the voice of reason and the party-pooper.

Young founders don’t always want to hear about the necessity of a shareholder agreement between partners, a tax-efficient corporate structure or the grinding reality of advancing or defending a legal claim in the courts, he explains.

“Their desire to be ahead of the curve sometimes makes them forget about the basics in law, and you can feel like a part-time psychiatrist and part-time lawyer,” Oberman says. “We try to not only be reactive but also proactive. If you can impart the need to be slightly conventional in terms of business structure and protecting intellectual property rights, then it’s much easier when it comes time to react, whether that’s to a dispute with a shareholder or infringement by a competitor.”

But when they strike the right balance, Oberman and his team feel like members of a startup’s family, he says. By helping clients develop and implement a long-term strategy, they can grow in tandem with the enterprise, adding to the legal team as needed.

“It’s symbiotic,” he says.

But it’s not just full-service firms embracing the tech law boom. At boutique business and technology law firm Oziel Law in Toronto, founder Allan Oziel has built a practice devoted to clients in innovative industries.

“Boutiques fare very well in this area because there are multiple sizes of businesses,” he says. “Large firms will take on the huge procurement projects for their existing institutional clients, but there are also a lot of small and mid-size businesses that either have tech law requirements or who are tech companies themselves and are looking for specific expertise at more affordable rates.”

Even as larger law firms start their own programs to attract up-and-coming tech companies at earlier lifecycle stages, Oziel says, there are still plenty of potentially thriving businesses overlooked.

“They have to start somewhere, and they’d rather start with someone who is capable of understanding their offering without having to spell out the meaning of the technical language they’re using,” he says.

And many of his tech law clients find a kindred spirit in Oziel, a self-professed — and self-taught — “tinkerer” who built his own computers, websites and networks in his younger days.

“Technology was a big passion of mine, and I knew I wanted to incorporate it into my practice,” he says.

Over the years, his firm has grown to four lawyers, and it now accommodates businesses at various stages of development.

“At one time, it was mainly software and hardware startups, but our clientele has grown. There are different points at which we pick them up, whether they’re seeking to raise money, wanting to go public or seeking exits,” Oziel says.

And while his own tech-savviness lends him a degree of credibility with clients, that only takes Oziel so far. He also prides himself on his adoption of cutting-edge legal technology to boost his practice’s efficiency.

“If tech-forward clients came to my office and saw I was doing everything manually on paper, they might question my understanding,” he says. “But when they come to our practice, it gives them some comfort that they are speaking with someone who cares about being up to date.”

At McCarthy Tétrault LLP’s Toronto office, Christine Ing, co-leader of both its information technology law and fintech groups, sees herself as a custodian of the firm’s storied history in the space.

And a crucial factor in maintaining that reputation is McCarthys’ ability to reflect clients’ creativity back at them in the delivery of legal services, she says.

“The firm has always taken outside-the-box approaches to providing solutions to clients,” Ing says, pointing to MT>3, its e-discovery and digital information division, and MT>Play, its recently formed global gaming consultancy.

“Technology is constantly evolving, but it’s rare that you find something completely new, and there is usually something in the law and prior commercial approaches that you can draw from to come up with a new solution,” she adds. “It takes some creativity, but it is also a lot of fun.”

Oziel expects more transformation of the field as lawyers specialize in current and yet-to-emerge technology.

“Young lawyers should start thinking about becoming expert in a very particular area and build a good practice by staying up to date and providing good advice in that niche.”

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