Toronto law schools are slowly learning to embrace technology

When Monica Goyal went to the University of Toronto’s law school 10 years ago, she did not learn much about technology or entrepreneurship.

“I wouldn’t say that they avoided discussing digital trends,” she tells NOW. “Their focus is to teach law students the law and meet their regulatory obligations.”

But the lack of legal tech in law schools stuck with Goyal. She had earlier graduated from the University of Waterloo’s electrical engineering program and that experience, combined with her law degree, got her brain buzzing.

Now an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, she’s blended her passion for start­up tech with her knowledge of the legal profession. Not only has she founded a course tackling information communication in law – Legal Information Technology – she also launched the platform My Legal Briefcase.

The six-year-old startup helps small-business owners headed to the Ontario Small Claims Court (OSCC) get their papers in order for an application, while also saving time and money.

Users fill out an online questionnaire about their claim and a proprietary program uses the answers to fill in forms to be submitted to the OSCC, which can then be printed out and filed.

“My hope is and was to use technology to deliver legal solutions to people in a different way,” says Goyal, adding that legal fees for small claims matters can range from $2,500 and up.

My Legal Briefcase is being noticed worldwide: she was among 10 women who made the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center’s annual global list of Women of Legal Tech list this year.

Goyal isn’t the only Ontario law prof trying to get the white-collar profession to embrace technology.

Ben Alarie, a law professor and Osler Chair in Business Law at the University of Toronto, was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug in 2015 when he and several colleagues launched Blue J Legal, an online B2B service that brings artificial intelligence to tax law.

The company’s main product is Tax Foresight, which predicts how a court will decide a case. The client answers a series of questions and the program runs a simulation of past tax-law decisions.

Popular queries include taxes around buying and selling condos, tax issues related to home-office classification and determining whether a worker is an independent or dependent contractor.

The idea is to simplify complex Canadian tax law. “It can be complicated on just an individual basis,” says Alarie. “So imagine how corporations might be dealing with difficult tax issues.”

Unlike My Legal Briefcase, Tax Foresight is for lawyers and accountants, as opposed to lay people, so the main benefit is maximizing efficiency.

Neither Tax Foresight nor My Legal Briefcase offer any real-time legal advice from professionals. As such, Goyal and Alarie both say they have received zero resistance from legal regulators in Canada.

It’s been a different story south of the border. Last year, the American Bar Association reversed a decision to support legal advice app Rocket Lawyer amidst a backlash from local bar associations and members weary of the “Uberization” of their profession.

“In fact, [regulators] seem to really understand that ours is a research tool targeted at helping professionals,” says Alarie.

Similar to Goyal, he has pushed technology at the law school level as the coleader of U of T’s Looking Ahead: The Blurred Lines of Technology, Body, and Mind, a course that “surveys the implications of emerging socially and economically transformative technologies.”

He notes that “lawyers are conservative as a lot,” but attitudes will change as they become more familiar with online services and demand them more often.

Fred Headon, the past president of the Canadian Bar Association and part of CBA’s Chair of Legal Futures Initiative, says progress in legal tech is coming slowly to law schools across Canada. He cites the courses lead by Goyal and Alarie, but also the University of Montreal’s unique Cyberjustice lab.

“A growing number of professors and deans are bringing the technologies now available into the classroom,” Headon says.

When schools and firms embrace new platforms, that adoption trickles down to clients – and their wallets.

“If technology can address the time-consuming processes lawyers deal with regularly – even if it’s software that can catch errors quickly – then that helps save lawyers time and thus saves clients money,” says Headon. | @SilverbergDave

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