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The future is about adaptability

When people talk about innovation in the legal market, a couple of themes inevitably come to mind: technology and a change in the way clients obtain legal services. But at the crux of all of this is not tech or billable hours — it’s about the people and how they will need to adapt to change.

Over two days last month, I was part of two different conferences that looked at innovation and the future of legal departments. One was focused on examining where in-house counsel are at when it comes to making and driving innovation. Hosted by Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, the session was facilitated by the firm’s national innovation leader, Mike Fekete, and included Melissa LaFlair, director of legal operations, legal services division at the Workplace Safety Insurance Board of Ontario, and Natalie Munroe, who leads Osler Works in Ottawa.

The session used polling technology to ask audience members, both in-person and on webcast, a series of questions on their use of technology, alternative service providers and what their main pain points are when dealing with legal work. Lack of cost certainty remains a top issue, that was clear. One audience member pointed out that the current law firm structure and billable-hour model prevents significant change. I argued that as the customer, the in-house client is more in the driver’s seat than they may think — from boutique and regional firms to alternative staffing models even the largest firms are offering.

The second conference was focused on the future of legal departments. I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of dream team in-house counsel — Peter Nguyen, general counsel of Resolver Inc., Bindu Cudjoe, general counsel of Canadian Western Bank, Nikki Latta, assistant general counsel of Deloitte Canada, and Lynne Charbonneau, former deputy general counsel of HSBC. What I appreciated most about this panel was their candour around where they had tried to do things and not quite hit the mark, and in particular at the end when Martine Boucher of Simplex Legal asked the panel what they are looking for in future hires. Latta spoke first, saying she wants something that sounds pretty basic but is apparently not always easy to find — lawyers with the flexibility to be ready to take on anything as the needs of the business change. Every organization likes to refer to the need of businesses to be “agile” these days — what that really means is that with the world changing as fast as it is, who can predict what will be needed more than six months or a year out.

So, while some in-house leaders admit that yes, a lawyer who can write code would be great, what they really need are people who can get up to speed on new client demands. This adaptability mindset is perhaps best demonstrated right now by those lawyers who have moved in-house to the cannabis sector. As Mariana Fonar of Lift & Co. says in our profile this issue, her biggest challenge is trying to “provide some certainty in an uncertain world, while properly evaluating risks and protecting the company’s interests knowing that the legal environment could change rapidly.” I think that is easily applied to most sectors in-house counsel oversee. It’s really what they do best — try to be two steps ahead in often ambiguous situations, knowing that things could change at any time.

Staying creative and curious is perhaps how the real innovation is going to happen in the years ahead.