Focus: Charting new courses in legal services

It’s not often a student comes out of law school, gets the nod to start a practice group at the law firm she joins after articling and quickly turns that experience into an in-house executive job in the span of a few years.

Yet, that’s what Diana Marina Cooper did when she graduated from the University of Ottawa and joined LaBarge Weinstein LLP after articling in 2014. She started a practice group focused on drones and robotics. Today, Cooper is vice president of legal at fast-growing drone maker PrecisionHawk.

Cooper says she came across the topic in her legal studies, where she was doing a specialization in technology law. She started researching liability issues related to autonomous systems and delivered a paper on how to mitigate concerns involving open-source robotics technology. Suddenly, she was invited to speak at various legal conferences and panels.

“There really weren’t any lawyers specializing in drones,” Cooper observes, adding the law was just taking shape.

“Every major law firm in the U.S. has a robotics practice” now, she says.

“Drones are so popular,” she adds, and “regulations are changing all the time.”

While some practice areas lose their lustre — as asset-backed financing did following the stock market crash in 2007 — there are always practice areas and opportunities emerging.

Fred Headon, head of the legal futures initiative of the Canadian Bar Association, says robotics is one of many emerging practice areas. Robotics spawns a number of interesting legal issues, especially around health and safety.

A second area in which Headon sees a bight future is privacy, driven by legislation such as Canada’s anti-spam law and the growing global interest in protecting personal information.

“On the privacy front, that seems to have been something that has the attention of governments around the world,” he says. A third related field that is quickly emerging is cybersecurity. The Canadian Securities Administrators made it known in late September that it will be looking more closely at public company disclosures around cybersecurity. The topic crosses a number of legal disciplines, from securities law to intellectual property, privacy and litigation. High-profile hacks have legal and financial regulators around the globe pushing organizations on the security of their IT systems.

Kirsten Thompson, a McCarthy Tétrault LLP lawyer who focuses on legal issues around data management, says cybersecurity is a “fairly new risk factor” that public companies must disclose, and there have been class actions in the U.S. for misrepresentation. So far, the suits have been unsuccessful, she notes, adding that “even an unsuccessful suit is expensive.”

A fourth area with a bright future is workplace law. Governments continue to change rules and regulations on companies regarding employee health and safety issues, as well as governing efforts around areas such as marketing.

The fifth area is technology law, which will continue to remain strong. Chances are it will start to drill down even more into specific areas. For example, the Competition Bureau is undertaking a fintech study to examine this emerging area, which covers companies that are building the next generation of payment systems.

Trade law is a sixth area that looks like it will also get a boost, given the recent election of Donald Trump in the United States. On the campaign trail, he was critical of free trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the latter of which appears all but dead. That could mean a return to bilateralism and a need for trade lawyers.

Environmental law is a seventh area that looks like it is on the upswing with recent announcements by a number of provinces and the federal government that they will impose carbon tax schemes. An aging demographic suggests that an eighth area involving health and welfare will increase demand for legal help over coming decades as baby boomers grow older. The need for wills and estates advice, estates litigation and health-care advocacy should be strong.

Emerging practice groups are only part of the growth opportunity. Law firms are also busy diversifying into ancillary services. For example, Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP has launched Osler Works, a new nearshoring opportunity the firm has set up in its Ottawa office to manage issues around business transactions.

Robert Yalden, co-head of mergers and acquisitions at the firm, says in-house legal teams are “under relentless pressure to grind down costs.”

“We were looking for ways in which we can help them generate better value for their spend,” he says, and one “constant source of preoccupation is due diligence.”

Osler Works has created a dedicated team of lawyers, business analysts and technology professionals who are experts in due diligence.

They will leverage technology and processes to bring efficiencies to the due diligence process.

“We are confident that we can drive it down to half of what [companies] typically spend. I think we can be a very compelling proposition for clients,” he says. Osler has created a similar internal group to oversee e-discovery. Headon is optimistic about the future of law, especially as law firms leverage technology.

“I think you will see lawyers pop up in a number of fields” where they haven’t been traditionally active, he says.

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