Simon Chester, a partner at Heenan Blaikie since 2004, is a member of their Toronto Litigation and Business Law groups. His practice focuses on knowledge management, research and legal opinions specifically. He has been a pioneer over the past 25 five years in the application of technology to the practice of law.
Simon studied Jurisprudence at University College, Oxford, and on winning the Canadian Rhodes Trust Scholarship did post-graduate work at Osgoode Hall Law School. After a decade in the Ontario government, he joined another major Toronto law firm as research partner. His earlier career included work as a faculty member at Osgoode Hall, on the research staff of the Ontario Law Reform Commission, and as Executive Counsel to the Attorney General of Ontario.
He has extensive experience in privacy and e-commerce.
Simon has held leadership positions in professional organizations and was the first non-American to chair the American Bar Association’s Tech Show. He chairs the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s Editorial Advisory Board. He served as President of the College of Law Practice Management and as President of the Oxford University Society in Toronto; he is a director of the Canadian Rhodes Scholars’ Foundation.
Simon has often testified before House of Commons and Senate Committees and is a frequent speaker at American, Canadian, Asian and European conferences on technology, international law and law practice management issues. He has contributed articles to the American Lawyer, International Business Lawyer, International Financial Law Review, Law Practice Management, CAMagazine, CBA National, Business Law International and the ABA Journal. He has written chapters for Winning with Technology, The Quality Pursuit, Environmental Rights in Canada and Canadian Legal Practice.
We welcome this opportunity for Simon, a perennial speaker at The Pacific Legal Technology Conference (including the upcoming 2009 version on Oct 2 in Vancouver) to answer 30 Questions for Busy Lawyers who use Technology:
1. Could you briefly describe your firm (number of lawyers, staff, areas of practice etc):
Heenan Blaikie is one of the ten largest law firms in Canada, although it is likely the youngest, since the firm was only formed in 1973. Practicing in four provinces, we currently have 495 lawyers, 6 Patent Agents, 67 Paralegals and 519 Support Staff : (which includes legal assistants and administrative staff (Accounting, Human Resources, IT, etc.). The firm’s historic strengths have been in labour relations, film, media and communications, public law litigation, pharmaceutical litigation and business law, but we have lawyers specializing in a vast number of areas from aboriginal land claims, mining project development, to atomic energy to minority language rights litigation. With the exception of the occasional white collar/regulatory defence, we eschew criminal work, and will refer out all family law work. The firm also has an active pro bono practice, and has been involved in a number of high profile recent constitutional challenges. In addition, the firm has an extensive international consulting practice, although this is generally conducted using advanced telecommunications and fly-ins.
2. When was your firm established?
I think we are the only firm of our size in North America where the three founding partners still maintain offices. Roy L. Heenan (litigation and labour), Peter Blaikie (corporate) and Don Johnson (corporate, tax and public policy) were friends in Montreal in the early 1970s. They decided to practice together under the name Johnson, Heenan Blaikie and on Don’s departure to become an MP and Cabinet Minister in Ottawa, the firm adopted it’s current name of Heenan Blaikie. I think it’s probably had the fastest growth in any firm in Canada, and indeed, growth is built into our DNA.
3. Where do you practice (one office, multiple offices, virtual offices, regional, national, international)?
We practice in 9 offices, in 4 provinces, with additional presences in Paris and Singapore. Within British Columbia, we have major office in Vancouver and a smaller one in Victoria. At one time, we also maintained a Kelowna office.
The firm’s expansion outside its original Montreal home has been both rapid and recent. We have been in Toronto for just 20 years, when Norm Bacal, who is currently our co-managing partner, left Montreal for Toronto to establish a bridge head. We now have over 183 lawyers, patent agents and paralegals in Toronto. In just twenty years. In 1991, our Vancouver office was established with Trois Rivieres a year later. Both Quebec City and Sherbrooke followed in 1998 with the Ottawa office being opened in 1999. Our latest two offices are in Calgary (2000) and in Victoria, where we’ve been since 2006. As I said, growth is in our DNA. Our BC offices are growing fast.
4. What are the demographic backgrounds of the lawyers and staff in your firm?
In a firm of almost 500 practitioners, it’s difficult to generalize about demographic backgrounds. In the five years that I have been practising here, I have been struck by both the young, the ethnic diversity and the variety of educational backgrounds of my colleagues. We have some 33 lawyers who have experienced teaching law, politicians (two prime ministers), a former premier of Quebec and a former British Columbia attorney general; former judges, a judge of the Supreme Court of Canada, the associate chief justice of Ontario, and two senior Quebec judges. Trudeau, Chretien and Bastarache are all household names. But all the members of the firm make a real contribution.
5. What prior degrees and/or experience do the lawyers and staff bring to your firm?
A significant number of members of the firm have experience in public service, either federal, provincial or international. A large number have been law clerks.
6. How would you describe the culture of your firm?
The firm prides itself on being young, open, collegial, and not inclined to take itself over “seriously”.
Historically, the firm has deep Quebec roots, but we work hard at ensuring that lawyers across the country are well integrated into the firm and its practice. Routinely, cross-provincial groups will be working on client files or firm initiatives.
One other way in which the firm is unique is visually. Our founding partner, Roy L. Heenan, Q.C. has one of the finest collections of contemporary Canadian art in private hands, and all of the art in our offices across the country is drawn from his private collection. It gives our working space an exciting, contemporary and Canadian feel.
7. Can you describe the firm’s management style?
The firm is managed by two co-managing partners, one a Montreal francophone labour lawyer and a Toronto-based tax/film lawyer, who collaborate fully multiple times a day on the issues that arise. We have a National Management Committee, as well as an Executive Committee responsible for major strategic decisions. The work of these groups is significantly facilitated by our technology.
8. Does technology assist you in the management of your firm? If so, how?
With offices across the country, and lawyers on the go all the time, the firm’s technological backbone is vital. Video-conference facilities link all of our offices, overcoming difficulties of time and space. All of our lawyers are equipped with Blackberries and use them to the fullest.
9. When did you first embrace technology?
Since my personal history and practice dates back to the earliest period in the application of technology to law, I will choose to answer this question personally.
· 1975 – First experience on QL Systems and my first writing on law and computers
· 1977 – Joined the Board of the Canadian Law Information Council, which focused long term on the application of technology to the practice.
· 1985 – First use of a desktop computer in my practice, and my first public presentations on technology and law.
· 1986 – First spoke at ABA TechShow (and continued at 12 subsequent Techshows). In 1993 I was the first non-American to chair ABA Techshow.
· 1987 – First started using email.
· 1989 – First article anywhere on CD Rom technology by lawyers.
· 1991 – First use of internet (using Unix commands), and Lord was it slow.
· 2007 – First non-American President of the College of Law Practice Management.
10. Can you describe the strategic advantage(s) that you feel that technology offers to you and your practice?
The strategic advantage is the integration of the various systems across a national platform, to permit close collaboration and shared expertise.
11. Are you a PC or a Mac office or both?
Like all large law firms, we are a PC shop. The last firms to move from Macs did so fifteen years ago. That’s not to say that you won’t see some of our lawyers with their personal MacBook Air, running alongside Windows. Apple hasn’t seriously targeted our market in years. Just go into an Apple store, and you will see that the Apple market is entirely targeted at consumers. Indeed, while I can recall half a dozen occasions when Apple has announced that it is going to be focusing on the legal vertical market, it never seems to follow through. With that said, we have a number of partners who are more comfortable with Apple machines, which are virtually running Windows. In addition, among both younger and older lawyers, Ipods are ubiquitous.
12. Which accounting system do you use?
We use CMS, with a fair amount of customization and integration. Our marketing, file management and time and billing systems are fully integrated. It’s the backbone of much more than time and billing. We have taken CMS, which is our time and billing system, and highly customized it with Share Point features to the point that it would be virtually unrecognizable to any other CMS user.
13. Do you use a case management application? If so, which one?
While we use Case Management software for particular files, we have no universal application. While perhaps arguably not a straight case management product, we do use some of the features of Summation for case management purposes.
14. What off-the-shelf packages do you use?
We are a Microsoft Office shop also running a variety of other products. In the litigation group, for litigation support and case management support, we use Summation, and for corporate records, we use an off-the-shelf package called Enact.
15. Do you use MS Sharepoint or similar collaboration technology?
We are experimenting with SharePoint out of the box, particularly, with shared knowledge applications, although we recognize that to make a truly robust knowledge management portal, we will need to go beyond the out of the box. Our firm’s intranet is built on Share Point and we are also using Share Point as a platform for collaboration with counsel and clients in two large litigation extranets.
16. Do you have a web page?
Absolutely, we have a webpage which functions in both languages and contains virtually all of the firm’s marketing materials. We are close to the launch of a newly designed web page.
17. A blog?
While the firm is toying with the idea of a blog, I personally have been one of the co-leaders of Slaw, the Canadian Legal Information blog for the last four years with some 700 posts to my name. Come on in, the water is lovely.
18. Do you use any social networking sites (LinkedIn, Plaxo, Facebook, Twitter etc.) in connection with your practice?
Some lawyers belong to such sites and use them for their personal marketing. But we’ve not embraced such sites for the firm as a whole. And we’re sufficiently skeptical of the utility of Facebook and its like that we restrict network access.
While I personally do use Linked In, and Legal On Ramp, I confess to being a slightly passive user. Oddly enough, I think I was the first Canadian member of the first legal social networking project, Steve Brill’s Counsel Connect, which was active in the 1993 to 1997 period. While that was very early days, the site was remarkably successful in generating a community of lawyers, and resulting in some billable files for me. Happy days.
19. Do you custom design any legal technology? If so, what?
We have programmers in Montreal who build applications for us, largely web based.
20. Are you a paper-less firm?
Regrettably, but realistically, no law firm of our size will be able to function in a purely paperless fashion for some time yet. As we moved our Toronto office recently, we’re keenly aware of just how much paper files we have – and what it costs us to maintain and archive them. While we’re seeing some reduction in the volume of filing thanks to the Interwoven document management system, paper is going to be around a lot longer.
21. What other technologies do you use?
Other technologies: The one I would mention here is the extensive use of Blackberries, digital dictation equipment and the like.
22. What specific technology is essential to your practice? Why?
Such technology is essential. In today’s environment, practice in a firm like ours is significantly enhanced by the use of collaboration tools, and by shared access to the knowledge archives of the firm.
23. Are you contemplating any changes to how you use technology in your firm? If so, what are you considering?
In the Toronto office, we have just moved all our phone systems to a CISCO VOIP platform. Over the coming months, that will be rolled out across the country. In the process, we will need to integrate it with Outlook and other applications. While we are looking at Office 2010, we have no immediate plans to migrate, and would certainly not do anything to precipitate it like migrate operating systems. Of course, when the next generation of exchange or interwoven emerges, we undertake those upgrades as a matter of course. In the longer term, we will need to look at Enterprise search features to enhance our knowledge management ability.
We were a late adopter of a document management system, and are still becoming accustomed to using that and working in teams and sharing information. The inadequacy of current search technology in off the shelf document management systems will, inevitably, prompt us to adopt some sort of enterprise search and we are continuing to explore those options.
24. How is your practice different from other practices in your area?
It’s difficult to know precisely how technology is used in other firms, with similar practice areas. We do try and keep our eyes on developments in the United States and elsewhere through participation in professional and peer organizations.
25. Do you support telecommuting or other alternative work arrangements?
Interestingly, the Toronto office of Heenan Blaikie has just moved premises and for one 9-day period, we were without permanent offices. The firm continued, clients were served, practices were maintained, all through the use of a web-based portal which gave us access to the current work product, email and the knowledge resources of the firm. I don’t think that the clients noticed the difference.
26. Do you think there is a barrier to lawyers adopting technology? (age, gender, geographic area, practice area, etc?) If so, do you have any recommendations for overcoming these barriers?
While when I started working at Heenan Blaikie, there were still a few partners who were hold-outs, now everyone is using the technology particularly the Blackberry. For those who find it difficult, I might recommend reverse mentoring, where younger tech-savvy lawyers get coupled with senior counsel.
27. What about barriers for staff adopting technology? Do you have any advice to offer in this regard?
In a firm of our size, with 500 support staff, making sure that they are comfortable with all of the features that they need to use, new technologies is always a challenge. We have dedicated trainers, a couple of training rooms, next to the staff lounge, and frequent refresher courses and updates. Of course, as with the lawyers, the trick is to fully exploit the technology which we have acquired.
28. Do you find that clients appreciate your use of technology?
Client expectations have changed markedly over the last five years with respect to technology and firms which are not fully embracing are likely to find themselves uncompetitive. The one thing that technology does do is to break down barriers of space and time and this may impose unrealistic expectations upon our ability to think, to fashion solutions, and to draft documents.
29. What advice do you have with regard to other lawyers adopting technology?
My advice to firms would be to ensure that all lawyers understand and appreciate the contribution that technology can make to the effectiveness of practice and also to encourage experimentation. Empowering younger lawyers or creating internal skunk works teams can often pay dividends. Lawyers in particular practice areas know what their needs are, and how technology can assist.
30. Where would you like to see the profession go with regard to legal technology?
Given the pace of evolution in the profession, it is difficult to speculate on what the future will hold. My impression is that the law has been slow to adapt to social media, web 2.0 and the potentially transformative tools which they offer. At the same time, it is not easy to see how these tools and technology marry to conventional large firm practice, and in particular how they will enhance our relationship with clients until the clients themselves indicate that they want to exploit the tools. However, I have no doubt that I am just about to be surprised by future turns of events. Stuff happens – and we never expect the Spanish Inquisition.
You can hear Simon in person at the Pacific Legal Technology Conference on Friday, Oct, 2, 2009 at the Vancouver Trade & Convention Center.This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 at 11:02 am and is filed under 30 Questions for Busy Lawyers, Adding Value, Business Development, Change Management, Firm Governance, Issues facing Law Firms, Law Firm Strategy, Leadership and Strategic Planning, Technology, Trends. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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