With digital technology widely predicted to be a key driver of the Canadian economy in the decades to come, it’s not surprising to see law firms jostling to attract the next generation of Canadian technology companies. In the process of attracting and serving these clients, law firms are embracing innovative changes to their service delivery models, billing practices and use of technology.
This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.
From the major Bay Street players to dozens of niche boutiques, Canadian law firms are more present than ever at the hangouts, co-working spaces and conferences frequented by early-stage startups. At first glance, it’s puzzling to see the resources, including pricey sponsorships, being diverted to a sector where most nascent companies operate at a loss, have a high rate of failure and could rarely afford the standard hourly rates changed by experienced counsel.
However, firms see the growth potential of startups and view them as lucrative long-term clients. At the moment they’re retained, startups provide fascinating work in cutting-edge sectors, and create a vibrant pipeline for the firm’s next generation of clients, according to Matthew Kelleher, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault who is actively involved in serving the firm’s early-stage and established technology clients. Although startup work often begins with business structuring, intellectual property (IP) issues and practical business advice, he expects that startup clients will eventually participate in more substantive transactions, like mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and financing deals, as the businesses mature.
Just like the startup founders that have taken the risk on an unproven business model, lawyers are showing an uncharacteristically high level of risk tolerance when working with these clients. Startups that gain customer traction, raise millions in venture capital and eventually go public are incredibly rare, especially in Canada. Most startups collapse long before they can use the services of high-billing M&A teams, let alone afford them.
But a closer look at the services being offered to cash-strapped startups by law firms reveals that lawyers are not naively hitching themselves to an economic bandwagon. In order to hedge this risk of serving an unconventional and emerging client sector, law firms are experimenting with new service delivery models. The legal services offered to startups are generally low-touch and tech-driven. By embracing technology and automation, firms can serve a large roster of startup clients without diverting resources away from their established clients.
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For example, take Nitro, the startup services wing of the venerable 150-year-old firm, Blake, Cassels & Graydon. Nitro, which is headed by Marc Shewchun, a veteran of celebrated Canadian startup Wattpad, offers clients access to a range of Blakes partners and associates more accustomed to addressing the financing, tax and IP needs of established public companies. But for day-to-day legal tasks, like minute book maintenance, corporate changes and equity management, Nitro clients are steered toward industry-leading legal technologies that can meet their needs.
Each Nitro client is given access to a suite of software tools, including Ownr, which generates legal documents, and Carta, which tracks a company’s ownership structure. Lawyers are provided with electronic notifications about their clients’ use of these tools, and l