Brave new world // Best Practices

Shelby Austin left Bay Street to pursue a good idea. Less than a year later, and still shy of her 30th birthday, this entrepreneur knows the ins and outs of legal outsourcing

By Alex Mlynek

On Friday June 11th, 2010

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Shelby Austin - photo by Vanessa HeinsIt’s an unseasonably warm spring afternoon and Toronto’s Queen Street West is teeming with people. A block north, the sun is streaming through the large loft windows of ATD Legal Services Professional Corporation where Shelby Austin, founder and managing director of the legal outsourcing firm, is describing her passion for documents. She exuberantly calls them “the absolute centre of your case.”

With ATD, Austin is taking advantage of a trend that has seen more legal firms outsourcing some of their research and writing, document review and due diligence. Outsourcers help firms deal efficiently with the reams of electronic data essential to many cases: smaller law firms get access to this resource for a fraction of the price of setting up their own team and Big Law cuts costs and allows counsel to focus on the bigger picture of a case. The market for outsourcing grew during the economic downturn. With the economy showing signs of recovery, Austin is counting on clients having become accustomed to the time and cost savings.

The 29-year-old Western Law grad refers to ATD as her “baby,” which it very much still is. Austin summered, articled and worked as an associate in the Toronto office of Lerners LLP. In 2007, she moved to Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP. Her focus was corporate and commercial litigation. By early 2009, less than three years after her call to the bar, she made partner. A little more than a year later she launched ATD. “People thought I was crazy, but here we are,” she says.

She has competition. Companies in India and local businesses do parts of what she does. Service, says Austin, is what sets ATD apart. “We treat our clients the way the best law firms treat their clients.” On a practical level, service translates into staffing a highcalibre team. “Many of our lawyers have a Bay Street pedigree or other senior corporate level experience.” Service also means being available on demand. ATD is able to staff a project 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The ATD office is a testament to this philosophy. There are computers with wide screens perfect for serious document reviewing and modular desks designed to create a team “mind-meld” where energy is focused on the project at hand. She wants her team of freelance lawyers to be in-house and comfortable. Many of them left large firms and don’t intend to go back. “We want people who will be with us for a significant period of time,” says Austin.

While Austin says she hasn’t hired any one personality type, many worked for Bay Street practices. “This is a reflection of my personal philosophy,” she says. “While you can teach anyone the necessary technological skills to do project-based work, that judgment is best learned in a traditional legal environment.”

Austin says she’s always had a healthy streak of entrepreneurial spirit. Still, she’s had to adjust to the risks of starting up and running her own business. “The temptation is, as a former litigator, to avoid all risk,” she explains. “Risk is something that grows on you, though. Having quit a job I really liked, it just came a bit more naturally.”

Even though Austin does not have businessschool training, she feels she’s up to the task. “I have boundless energy and passion, because I believe this is the future of law,” she says. Then, despite the beckoning sun, Austin returns to her work, because it takes more than passion to run a business.


The Lowdown: Shelby Austin

  • Year of Call: 2006
  • Current Job: Managing Director of ATD Legal Services
  • First Job: Counsellor at Camp Arowhon
  • Proudest Moment: Quitting my job to start my company
  • Worst Course in Law School: Foundations of Canadian Law (it was boring)
  • Greatest Frustration: Getting sick; anything that slows me down
  • Favourite Law Movie: Legally Blonde
  • Personal Style: Attention to detail

photography by Vanessa Heins