Out of Practice - Exploring Legal Career Paths in Canada

Interview of Christopher Sweeney, President, LexLocom

Q.  Could you tell me about LexLocom and what it does?

LexLocom is a legal process outsourcing company, dedicated to assisting law firms and legal departments to help them plan, budget, implement and manage cost-effective legal staffing and resource requirements. Our services range from document review, e-discovery, contract hires and other consulting services.  LexLocom understands that our clients have different needs throughout the year and may need to hire experienced legal professionals without incurring the long-term commitment of a permanent hire.

Document review is often the most labour-intensive and expensive stage of the litigation process. To further reduce expenses, a growing number of technologies that automate the review process have entered the market. For an example, during a document review project, lawyers are instructed to look for any discussion whatsoever that involved fidelity insurance or other unique topic.  Increasingly a lot of that work can be done through algorithms and predictive coding. Sometimes a computer algorithm cannot pick out ‘coded’ material – for instance, if somebody were trying to hide a certain type of behavior by using the word ‘green’ instead of the name of the actual behavior.   The text might read:  “Are you going to be doing green tonight?”  And the other person responds, “I’ll be doing green tomorrow,” and they continue to talk about green over and over again.  A human reading this realizes that it is not coherent, whereas a computer would not necessarily be able to pick that up. This is the reason why there is still a human element necessary in the document review process, despite the fact that algorithms are becoming more sophisticated. There is still a lot work to be done by lawyers in these high-volume litigation matters, especially when it comes to analyzing the crucial documents for relevance, privilege or confidentiality.

Ultimately, LexLocom was created to assist our clients in developing flexible, innovative and cost-cutting strategies to improve operating effectiveness and increase service levels. We are ready to provide a team of up to 20 lawyers who understand the legal and factual issues at hand and are able to make the necessary judgment calls. After they review a large volume of documents, they subsequently identify and provide the most important compressed records to the law firm’s in-house lawyers, who decide the next steps.

Q.  Would they do this work at the law firm or off-site?

Both! Our team of highly professional staff can work at the law firm or off-site, depending on the clients’ needs and/or request. Our REVDOC Centre® has the people, equipment and premises to instantly accommodate up to 20 lawyers onsite and more offsite to meet the document review deadlines at a highly competitive cost.

Q.  How does the employment for your lawyers work?  Is it contract-based?

LexLocom has an extensive pool of qualified candidates who are available for short, medium and long-term temporary work, on a freelance basis. Simply, it is contract-based, depending on the length of the project.  Projects range from 2-3 days to 2-12 months. Most commonly however, the duration of the projects ranges from 2-8 weeks.

Q.  Do you have a list of lawyers that you would call in, project by project?

Yes, all with different expertise and backgrounds. These legal professionals are ready to start projects on a days’ notice.

Q.  So do you have people who are working for you and that’s their only job?

This group of professionals may work on different projects throughout the year. There are a few companies like LexLocom out there, so we usually employ them for a few weeks and they subsequently work on a different project on other weeks.  They are freelance, going wherever the contract work is.

Q.  What are the hours like once there is a contract?  Is there flexibility?

The flexibility depends on the nature of the project. Often the hours are 9am-5pm, but can sometimes be longer, and more like 9am-9pm. For instance, if the assignment is due diligence related, looking through corporate documents for something that an acquirer should be concerned about is time-sensitive; therefore the documents must be looked through quickly.  These types of due diligence projects require longer hours and seven day work-weeks. In other cases, such as an ongoing litigation matter that has been slowly progressing for years, the hours would more often be 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday.

Q.  Do you have a sense of the backgrounds of the lawyers you work with?  Is there a typical profile of where these people are coming from?

The lawyers are all really diverse. For the most part, the majority of legal professionals are working on a temporary basis in hopes of locating a permanent position down the road. Other professionals prefer to work on different projects and truly enjoy the flexibility it offers, making time for other important things in their lives, whether it is their families, travel or personal hobbies. So for those people who are looking for a work-life balance, this works out very well.

Q.  Do the lawyers need to be located in the Toronto area?

It depends on where the project is taking place.  There are some projects where you can work from home and others that require you to work in the same establishment. In the latter cases, it tends to be in a major center, like Toronto.

Q.  So do the contract lawyers need to be Ontario lawyers to work for you?

They usually need to be called to the bar in any Canadian province. Furthermore, they need to obtain the appropriate insurance coverage, which can be purchased from the Law Society on a short-term basis.

Q.  Are you yourself a lawyer?

Yes.

Q.  Can I ask how you got into this area?

Over 17 years ago, I founded ZSA, a national legal recruitment company.  We have a lot of lawyers in our database who are looking for work and most of the placements we make are permanent hires.  As ZSA’s clients grew increasingly more interested in contract lawyers, we started a contract division at ZSA. This led me to create a separate entity, LexLocom, dedicated solely to contract work. Although LexLocom is a separate organization, ZSA provides the legal talent for LexLocom.  We have over 15,000 lawyers registered with us nationally.

Q.  If someone wanted to get involved, they would contact ZSA?

They can contact either ZSA or LexLocom; either one works!

Q.  Are there any particular qualities or skills that make a lawyer successful in being a contract lawyer?

Yes, certainly there are. You have to be focused, patient and detail-oriented, as the work can be somewhat routine and mundane.  Being a quick reader is also helpful because the clients are always looking for speed and cost-effectiveness, and having a lawyer who can process documents rapidly is obviously an advantage to them.

Some files also require the legal team to have specific skill-sets.  For instance, if it’s a big construction litigation file, then the client may very well want to bring in lawyers with specific construction litigation experience to participate on the file.

Q.  Can you give me a sense of how the pay would compare to say, a Bay Street firm?

The pay is actually quite high if you work continuously throughout the year. Most lawyers receive anywhere from $50 to $80 an hour.  Ordinarily however, the contract lawyers are not employed consistently.

Q.  Do you see this as a growth area?

Yes, especially in the next five to seven years. I do however foresee automated document review algorithms as taking a lot of this work away.  Computer companies are constantly working at coming up with more and more sophisticated algorithms to process documents.  New technology is the biggest threat to this as a viable long-term career.  Ultimately, I do not see this being a massive business ten years from now. Nevertheless, I do believe that there will always be a need for some human input.

Using the analogy of an airplane take-off and landing, we currently do not need a pilot to take-off or land, as this is done automatically. Despite this fact, we prefer having humans at the controls during these crucial moments. Similarly, there will likely always be a desire amongst clients to have humans involved in the review process, overseeing and ensuring that the software is coming up with the right results and not missing out on pertinent documents.

Q.  Is there anything else that would be helpful for lawyers considering this path to know?

I have provided you a ‘within-the-box’ vision of this industry.  Law firms are increasingly facing economic pressure, as evidenced by the collapse of Heenan Blaikie.  In circumstances where firms require additional assistance if a massive file enters their door, they will likely hire temporary legal professionals to handle those files, as opposed to hiring additional lawyers.  Seemingly, once that specific project is over, those lawyers are let go immediately.

Straight document review probably has a limited shelf-life because of the increasing sophistication of computerized processing. Nevertheless, as I mentioned before, there will be always be that need for human input. The future could very well mean that law firms may remain lean and beef-up on an as-needed basis, thus creating a demand for contract legal services.