It’s the speech that has the world buzzing. The video of Oprah Winfrey receiving the Cecil B. de Mille Award at the Golden Globes was the #1 trending video on YouTube. But why is it striking such a chord with so many?

 

I believe it is, in part, due to a shared experience of those of us who have experienced marginalization in its many and pervasive forms. When she describes herself as a child, watching Sidney Poitier receive the same award, it is easy to nod along. It is that same feeling of validation when you see authentic representations of yourself in media. It is that inexplicable shared pride when others in your community are successfully living their dreams. It is the small victories and social movements that move conversations forward.

 

Oprah nails what diversity and representation means to those of us in the “cheap seats”. It alleviates the sense of isolation of imposter syndrome. This is the perception that you are inadequate and unworthy, followed by the nagging feeling that you’re a fraud, you don’t belong, and everyone knows your secret. Imposter syndrome causes an internal personal struggle against attributing your achievements to merit, dedication, and hard work. Add that to an outside battle against stereotypes, misperceptions, and tokenism surrounding equity initiatives and you’ve got a perfect storm for self-doubt.

 

Oprah says that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool you have. However, she also highlights why it is perfectly normal to be scared of the risk in telling your story. It’s the burden of “children to feed, bills to pay” and I would add, the expectations of others. “Dreams to pursue” aren’t purely individualistic, they are often culmination of sacrifice and dreams of loved ones as well.

 

Oprah’s speech highlighted how the need for empowerment and to speak up presents itself across every industry, including our own legal profession. In our profession we reinforce the us vs. them mentality with talk of the ‘client as the enemy’ and the disdainful ‘non-lawyer’ designation. If we want diversity and equity to thrive, the response must be more than lip service. These movements and conversations are a call to action for leadership. It requires those in a position of power to listen to marginalized groups and to create space to have their voices amplified. In my experience, this form of allyship is the most authentic and it creates valuable progress in diversity.

 

As part of our vision at Aspire, we are working on a practice that emphasizes the inherent value of all the voices at our table. In our workplace, we encourage collaboration and recognize that each member of our team has a unique view and insight on our projects. With our clients, we listen to their input, insights, and seek to understand what they want to achieve for themselves and their family beyond the outcome of a specific legal issue. Whether we call it client-centric, collaborative, or speaking our truth, the fundamental belief is that we all win when we work together as equals.

 

Has Oprah’s speech miraculously launched us into that new day on the horizon? While her influence is undeniable, change still feels incremental. However, I maintain hope for a brighter morning even when sometimes it still feels like the darkest night.

Updated: Dec 20, 2017

 

In October 2017, the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family released the

results of a voluntary survey of lawyers and judges who participated in the 2016 National Family Law Program*. One of the interesting statistics that came from that informal research was about the proportion of files that lawyers had where one party was self-represented. The average percentage of files that participants reported having a self-rep on the other side for the last year was 20.4% - not an insignificant amount.

 

Acting for one party on a file where the other party is self-represented obviously adds some complexity for the lawyer. Self-reps often find themselves attempting to navigate a confusing system without proper guidance and information. This can result in them filing too many (or not enough) claims, peppering you with emails that you may not properly be able to answer within the confines of acting in your client’s best interests, and can (through no fault of their own) cause proceedings to drag out without finding an adequate resolution. A matter that takes considerable time to settle isn’t in anyone's benefit, including your clients.

 

It can be frustrating, and sometimes near-impossible, to manage your end of the file and assist the self-rep without finding yourself in a conflict of interest. You may really want to help, but in many ways your hands are tied by our Code of Conduct, and no one wants to expose themselves to complaints to the Law Society. Going the other route and attempting to restrict communications with self-reps doesn’t help anyone get through the matter either, and can close the door on achieving a timely settlement outside of court. This is where we can come in handy!

 

Our aim is to help self-reps be better prepared in all aspects of their matter. Self-reps may be able to take advantage of our sliding scale billing, and can pick and choose which services will best assist them, even if they are especially sensitive to cost. And no matter why a person is choosing to represent themselves, we can support them through as much or as little of their matter as they want - they get to remain in the driver’s seat. This will mean a better prepared, more organized self-rep for you to work with; one who won’t need to put you in an awkward position by asking for help or advice, and won’t need your guidance to take the appropriate steps that will help settle the issues.

 

Statistically speaking, you have at least a file or two (or ten) with a self-rep on the other side at this moment. Refer them to Aspire – it’s not only going to help the self-rep get valuable assistance, but will help your client too!

 

 

*The complete title of the research is The Practice of Family Law in Canada: Results from a Survey of Participants at the 2016 National Family Law Program, written by Lorne D. Bertrand, Ph.D., Joanne J. Paetsch, B.A., John-Paul E. Boyd, M.A., LL.B., and Nicholas Bala, L.S.M., J.D., LL.M. It was published by the Government of Canada.

A few questions to think about as 2017 comes to a close: how efficient is your practice? Are you taking advantage of readily-accessible technologies to streamline your processes and reduce costs? And if not, what’s stopping you?

 

For the past few months, I’ve been working with a group of like-minded people who think the “best-before date” on the current practice model for legal services has come and gone. We’ve undertaken a simple task: re-imagine legal service delivery from the ground up.

 

As with any start-up with big ideas, we’ve encountered roadblocks and setbacks, some expected, some not. But during the process, one thing has become very clear: technology has the power to stand traditional legal service delivery on its head.

 

I’m not talking about cutting-edge AI being developed by a superstar engineer in Silicon Valley (although the potential for AI to disrupt legal services is enigmatic). I’m talking about using off-the-virtual-shelf technology to make legal service delivery more efficient, both in terms of time and expense. Every manual step taken to open, advance, and close a file is an opportunity to do better. At Aspire, we’re trying to use online forms with conditional logic to gather client information in an effective way. Why charge clients hundreds (who am I kidding, thousands of dollars) just to ask them straight-forward questions?

 

These are not generic PDF questionnaires that clients download and fill out before meeting us. They're automated tools that guide clients through an information gathering exercise. Clients are asked questions relevant to their circumstances and chosen service. The questions are asked one at a time, in a conversational tone, and legal concepts are explained in plain language. They’re not perfect. Inevitably information is missed, and we need to circle back to ask uncommon questions directly. But we’re able to gather lots of information (and data) without lifting a finger.

 

Think about that for a second. We can ask clients a series of questions using multiple layers of if-then logic, and collect their answers, without doing any manual work. Plus, these tools can easily be improved as we collect and analyze data. If question X commonly needs to be asked in situation Y, we can build that into the automation. And unlike humans, computers don’t forget to ask questions. They don’t send clients follow-up emails asking about something they forgot to discuss in their last meeting because they weren’t sufficiently caffeinated. If you program a computer to ask 35 questions in a certain order, according to certain conditions, it asks them every time, without fail.

 

I'm not saying that computers are inherently better at asking questions than people. They're not. Great lawyers guide their clients in a sympathetic and constructive way. But not every question needs the same level of expertise and finesse to ask. And if we're serious about dealing with major access to justice issues, we need to look for creative ways to become more efficient.

 

If you’d like to see a (very limited) example of how we use this technology, head over to our services page and click “Get Started”. You’ll be taken to our intake tool, where clients are able to select their service and determine their flat-rate fee according to our sliding scale.

 

What do we do with the information we gather using these tools? That’ll be the topic of my next post. Here’s a hint: we don’t print it off and store it in a filing cabinet.