Applying tech to the law

Innovation lab explores how tech is revolutionizing the law

The law is a discipline rooted in the past: literally, in precedent. But today’s accelerating waves of change mean law firms need to keep an eye on the future.

That’s why Bill Watson (BA ’76), principal partner at global law firm Baker McKenzie, got in touch with Ben Graham and Economics Professor Larry Smith at the University of Waterloo’s Problem Lab, a new program that teaches students to identify important economic, technical, consumer or industrial problems.

Baker McKenzie wanted to develop the world’s first multidisciplinary collaboration lab in global law in Toronto, and Waterloo’s reputation for innovation promised fresh perspective.

“We were trying to be innovative both in our practice and in our relationship with our clients,” says Watson, a past chair of the University’s Board of Governors. “And I thought the best place to start, frankly, was to have a dialogue with folks at the University of Waterloo and try to engage with some co-op students.”

Waterloo co-op students explore new ways to apply tech to the law

Timisha RomainTwo Waterloo co-op students, Timisha Romain and Quinn Millard, were selected to invest long days at the Problem Lab to research the risks and potential that technology posed for the law. Their fields of study — biotechnology and economics for Romain, and systems design engineering for Millard — were an asset for Baker McKenzie because the law firm believed their diverse backgrounds were ideal for tackling new problems.

“It was our first time doing innovation-related research in a legal context," says Romain. "We learned to work with ambiguity while exploring new ways to apply technology to business challenges as well as multidisciplinary collaboration processes.”

Companies are looking for new ways to address “sticky problems”

Ross Johnston, executive director of Waterloo’s co-op program, says Baker McKenzie’s use of co-op students for fresh viewpoints is part of a trend he’s seeing.

“Companies appreciate having different minds around the table when addressing sticky problems," he notes. "Students with an unblinkered approach from diverse programs can offer a new way of looking at problems.”

Baker McKenzie's Whitespace Legal Collab launched in June 2017 and was recently awarded the Financial Times North America Innovative Lawyers Award for Innovation in the Business of Law: Strategy and Changing Behaviours. Drawing on designers, data visualization experts, tech firms and university partners, it’s headed by futurist Sanjay Khanna and partner Theo Ling.

“The growth of data is about risk and opportunity,” Ling says. “Among other things, our solution prototypes strive to surface valuable legal insights by applying AI to sensitive data and regulations.”

“Taking a wider view allows us to bring tangible value to collaborative legal innovation projects," adds Khanna. "Waterloo's Problem Lab, its co-op leadership and its students are valued partners in our success.”