In 2017, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP held its first-ever Innovation Challenge. The firm divided 47 associates into 14 teams and assigned them an ambitious task: identify an antiquated legal process and bring it into the 21st century. Throughout the contest, Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone held sessions with the associates to help develop their ideas. It was, after all, an intimidating task.
“We were all litigators,” recalls Evan Thomas, who was one of the associates on a five-person team. “So it didn’t take us long to get to undertakings.” Ah, yes: undertakings. In the discovery stage of a lawsuit, both parties get together and pose questions to the opposing side. To answer certain questions, the parties will need to review records or make inquiries. The promise to provide a written answer after doing so is called an undertaking.
But to respond to each question is tedious and time-consuming: the process can create thousands of documents, in multiple formats, zipping between inboxes for months. “From a project-management perspective, it’s daunting,” says Thomas, who’s now counsel at the firm. It’s expensive, too. In a sample of 11 complex cases, Osler found that responding to undertakings cost the client an average of $645,000.
Thomas and his team dreamed up a solution: an online portal that would allow clients and lawyers to manage the entire undertakings process in one place. That proposal won the challenge.
The next step was turning the idea into reality. That job fell to Jennifer Thompson, the head of Osler’s litigation-support team. In short order, she built a cloud-based undertakings platform, which allows the firm to submit answers, track refusals and upload documents in a tidy manner. The project is in a pilot phase, with a firm-wide rollout set to take place over the next year, but it has already slashed the amount of time that lawyers spend on this work.
“A lot of people ask why we’re doing something that causes us to bill fewer hours,” says Thompson. “It’s simple: we’re freer to do the creative work we should be doing, not the administrative work that technology can handle.”
This story is from our Winter 2019 Issue.
Still life photography by Justin Poulsen