Advice for Students Entering Law School in 2015

Recently I read through an engaging thread on LinkedIn that asks: “What’s one piece of advice you’d give yourself upon entering law school this year?”

I was impressed by how many Queen’s alumni reached out with candid and honest advice. Many commenters focus on tried and true advice for law school success: Students who listen, prepare for class, and work hard will often be rewarded with good grades. Demonstrating mastery with good grades in law school has and always will be impressive.


I think that students entering the class of 2019 should also question whether good grades should be their goal. If I could, I’d ask my 1L self to challenge the timeless advice for success in law school. What the law needs now are big thinkers, dreamers, and risk takers.
What the law needs now are big thinkers, dreamers and risk takers
  
Being an expert at grinding the grist of daily readings and lecture will not help us move forward or create new ways of delivering legal services. Specifically, the legal services that most Canadians need but can’t afford.

After leaving the hallways of law school, I recognize the many ways we’re reinforcing the myth that lawyers can do it all on our own. Law school rewards students, for example, who contribute modestly, dedicate themselves to individual study, and perform better than the competition.

When applied to client service, that model creates capable practitioners who’ve learned to treat every problem as unique. That time-intensive method promotes high quality, but comes at a high cost. 

Why are we focused on graduating students with skills that helped 20th century lawyers succeed, when skills like systems-thinking, project management, and IT leadership will help 21st century lawyers succeed?

Instead of teaching students to challenge, question, and evolve methods we’re sending the message that evolution isn’t necessary. Our last major innovation was inspired by Socrates: asking students questions in class rather than lecturing. We’re not even measuring our learning outcomes: are we getting better at preparing students for practice, or worse? 

I say this all in hindsight. I entered law school after the 2008 financial crisis and hoped that things would go back to the way they were. Like many students, I liked how timeless law seemed. I naively thought law was a sure and steady path to success. 

After seeing so many capable classmates graduate and struggle to find employment, my perspective has changed. Hardworking people who will make great lawyers can’t find work, because the old ways are no longer affordable. I see now that the only way to success is to stray from that well-worn path, to explore other avenues, and to embrace change. 

I wish all the students accepting offers at law school this year the best of success. Please comment or reach out through my contact form if you have questions or want to talk about law school.

Design Firms Do Conferences Differently: FITC Toronto 2015

This past Sunday, April 12 through Tuesday, April 14, Toronto hosted the 14th annual Future Innovation Technology Creativity (FITC) conference. Now in its 14th year, FITC caters to a more design-heavy technology group, featuring equal parts technical workshops, wild parties and inspirational talks. I was able to attend the event as an “official blogger,” or volunteer media personnel. I really enjoyed the introduction to the world of design and digital art–the people who make tech beautiful and easy to use.

Why was I there? I wanted to learn more about creative firms and the challenges they face, because I’d like to have creative agencies as clients one day. If I learned one thing, it’s that a traditional legal marketing approach (focusing on expertise, stuffy speeches and pinstripe suits) is completely foreign to people in the design community. The experiences they share are more raw and honest.

When I arrived at FITC, I noticed right away how different it was from an ordinary conference. The design-conscious organizers made the Hilton’s basement conference zone look like a rock concert. Party lighting brought some energy to the otherwise neutral hotel concourse. The dress code was casual but stylish. Mohawks were not uncommon. Attendees included coders, designers, artists, and entrepreneurs, and they were all friendly.

FITC’s 14 years of success showed. The event ran like clockwork, with large teams of volunteers registering, ushering, collecting feedback, and directing the day. In particular it was nice to see breakout rooms for sketching, dancing and creative pursuits. FITC isn’t all about sitting down and listening–it was more like a supportive community coming together to share lessons, jobs, tools, and good times.

As part of my role, I got to cover a few specific talks:

  • Gavin Strange, Bristol UK-based animator for Wallace & Grommet’s creator Aardman, talked about pushing boundaries with “one-nighter” projects and new media.
  • Shawn Pucknell, FITC’s CEO spoke candidly about bankruptcy, failure, and how to survive.
  • Kim Alpert, a creative strategist and artist, talked about breaking through limits and refusing to be defined by anyone’s expectations.
  • Finally, I learned about Flickr’s ongoing growth and transformation following its acquisition by Yahoo. It was a great story about shifting competitive landscapes and leadership.

For anyone interested in design, technology or startups, I highly recommend connecting with the FITC community. Ideally I’d like to attend next year as a volunteer again or a speaker. If I do, one thing is for sure: a standard legal precedent walk-through won’t cut it.

Finally, big thanks to the FITC organizers for inviting me as an official blogger this year, it was a great experience.

Wearable Tech Out of Sight, In Mind at Genesys’ Toronto Tech Summit

Wearables, user experience (UX) design and the internet of things (IoT) took the stage at Genesys technology’s first Toronto Technology Summit this April 2, 2015. Attendees were guided through afternoon talks and discussions by Betakit’s high-energy senior editor Tom Emrich (@tomemrich). I attended the event to learn more about Canadian startups pursuing opportunities in the area and I wasn’t disappointed.

Surprisingly, the event wasn’t all positive on wearables: the theme was that IoT has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential. Wrist wearables like Fitbit and the Apple Watch have the same problem as phones—they take our eyes away from the world. IoT is really about freeing people from a reliance on visuals for data. We won’t see the best IoT until we’ve fully unlocked our other senses’ potential to interact with our environment, including movement, sounds, touch, breathing and yes, thinking.

When entering the tech summit’s venue at 87 Elm Street, I couldn’t help but notice one thing: Genesys’ Markham team was out in full force. I have no relationship to Genesys but I have to say they did a great job organizing the event. The event was free and the staff were friendly—it was hard not to like the bright-eyed co-op students who came to talk about their first job. Many were from the University of Waterloo. For software developers, UX designers and tech folks out there, Genesys also made it very clear that it’s hiring.

Genesys Toronto Tech Summit

The event started out with casual networking over a great lunch spread. I met a few Genesys employees who seemed genuinely excited about their jobs. They explained that the company makes call center software that uses your voice to direct your call. As a Genesys spokesperson later explained, there’s more to it. They want to move to a point where customer service calls going “off the rails” can be detected in real time. For example, Rogers could hear customers threatening to transfer to Bell immediately so supervisors can save the day. Not a bad idea.

The tie-in to wearables, IoT and Genesys is this: technology like voice-detection is about building more efficient links between the physical and digital world. Whenever it’d be faster to think, breathe, talk or gesture rather than push a button or click a screen, there’s an opportunity for wearables and IoT to speed things up. It’s about building technology that’s passively aware and responsive. In a similar fashion, great UX design is intuitive and lets people interact naturally with digital displays. The Summit speakers did a great job elaborating on those three themes.

Wearables can monitor your brainwaves

The first headliner speaker at the event was Jay Vidyarthi (@jayvidyarthi) from Toronto-based startup Muse, the brain-sensing headband. I hadn’t heard about Muse before, but their idea is worth talking about. They’ve designed a headband that measures the Electroencephalography (EEG) waves emanating from our heads. As Jay said during his talk, EEG technology has been around for a long time. The Muse difference is that it offers clinical-grade EEG for $299 MSRP, instead of a $30,000+ hospital setup.

The device’s measurement capability provokes some interesting questions. For example, could we use it to monitor and predict oncoming epileptic attacks? Jay said that the company is talking to research institutions all over the world who are interested in using the Muse headband to study EEG waves.

The primary use Muse is going after is helping people meditate by making them more aware of (and therefore control) their brain waves. They liken Muse to a gym for your mind. The device can help you monitor your attention span and strengthen it over time. Personally, I thought that use was interesting but its benefits need scientific support. What did stand out about the company was its exceptional use of customer-centric reviews and feedback loops to improve the product. It was a great intro to the next topic, which was about making design methodology core to a business.

Design culture is about simplicity and efficiency

The second headliner at the Toronto Tech Summit was Joel Grennier (@jgrenier05) from Ottawa’s You.i. Joel switched gears away from wearables and focused on design as a business methodology. You.i created the design cross-platform multi-device UX you’ll see on Canada’s new Netflix competitor Shomi_. From what Joel showed us in his very sharp looking slides, the UX on Shomi is formidable.

Joel had a few pointers on creating well-designed products. The first was that truly responsive “infused” design processes take time to build. Companies can’t add a designer to a software engineering team and call it a day. The management at You.i made a conscious decision to build an integrated design-programming team culture. Joel warned that your company needs both willpower and dollars behind a design strategy before it will amount to anything. However, if design is taken seriously and built into a true capability, it can “change a company’s trajectory.”

How does a company do that? Joel had two great examples. At You.i he said that HR had to make “design” a sought-after language, just like in software. The company had to be able to recognize design talent, seek it out and retain it. I liked that idea, but I liked the second one even more: You.i took all the art and pictures off the walls. Every wall is covered teams’ ongoing work product, to create a culture of transparency and generate discussion. Talk about an embedded focus on design.

Toronto has leaders in UX design and wearables, but there’s work to be done

For the rest of the afternoon, the Toronto Tech Summit continued on with other great speakers:

  • Macy Kuang (@macykuang), an expert developer for Google Glass/ Google Cardboard;
  • Leor Grebler (@grebler) from The UBI, a platform that integrates voice commands and language interaction with IoT devices;
  • Renn Scott, Founder and Chief Designer, Daily Goods Fashion Tech;
  • Nick Van Weerdenburg (@n1cholasv) from io Inc.; and
  • Director of IoT at Telus, Sachin Mahajan.

During the talks, topics like the Apple watch and Fitbit came up. However, the audience piped up and was quick to point out the current limits on wearables and IoT. The wrist-bound tech that’s entering the mainstream market has all the flaws of the phones they’re meant to replace. What consumers want is to be able to freely interact with their environment while also benefitting from the information that tech makes available.

Although the legal and privacy issues inherent in wearable tech and IoT never made an official appearance at the event, it was a success all the same. I’m looking forward to attending Genesys’ next Toronto Technology Summit this coming Fall 2015.

Three Main Themes from NCFA’s 2015 Crowdfunding Summit

March 3, 2015 marked the first annual National Crowdfunding Association of Canada (NCFA)’s summit at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. The event combined informative, strategic, and regulatory updates for entrepreneurs interested in the space as well as a live pitching competition for startups.

The core idea: entrepreneurs in Canada currently struggle to raise capital when the amount is between $25,000 and $250,000. Crowdfunding is an attractive oasis in Canada’s barren venture capital landscape, but as we learned at the summit, we have a long way to go before crowdfunding realizes its full potential.

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I was lucky to have the chance to volunteer for the event. At the registration desk and on breaks I spoke with sponsors, attendees, and speakers alike. The pitching competitions were also extremely popular (here is a full list of speakers, sponsors, and companies who pitched). The event had a live twitter feed at #CCS2015 which was great for updates from the three simultaneous session-rooms. Nikolas Badminton from FreeLancer.com wrote a great LinkedIn post on the event here, and James Daigle created a Twitter list of speakers and attendees to follow here.

Three main themes were repeated at the NCFA’s summit: crowdfunding is making capital markets more social, accessible, and challenging to regulate.

Crowdfunding is an inherently social investment tool

FundRazr’s CEO Daryl Hatton talked about how social media and crowdfunding combine to change the way people are investing. According to Hatton, Facebook makes up about 98% of FundRazr’s social shares. Investors want to promote their own investments to their friends.

The days where “angel investment” ended at local friends and family are over. Now early-stage investment can be fueled by dispersed networks with the strength of those community bonds. As one pitch competition judge put it:

Tonya Surman, CEO of Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation talked about her experience crowdfunding “community bonds” to fund the centre’s real estate purchases. In addition to using social connections to boost business investment, it also has the power to share and spread ideas that help support communities. What a powerful combination.

Crowdfunding makes capital markets more accessible

Social investment may be a powerful promotion tool, but another theme repeated at the Summit was that Canadian business owners pursue crowdfunding because there is a scarcity of capital in our country. Although this may change as the startup industry heats up in Canada’s tech centers, for now, crowdfunding provides ready access to investors around the world.

There were startups at the summit applying the crowdfunding model to fund companies by connecting seed-stage startups with unaccredited investors (SeedUps.com) all the way to pairing private-equity ready businesses with high-value accredited investors (InvestX.com). All of them had one thing in common: they were capitalizing on the opportunity to provide easier and affordable access to equity (and debt) financing in Canada.

Crowdfunding is creating a regulatory challenge for Canada

Crowdfunding’s greater reach and accessibility creates a challenging regulatory environment, especially in Canada where securities regulations vary by province.

Vancouver lawyer and founder of Venture Law Corporation, Alixe B. Cormick, had an impressive presentation that outlined some current barriers to entrepreneurs in Canada seeking equity investment abroad. The complex interplay between US and Canadian securities regulations means that legal advice will be critical for business owners performing big fundraising rounds using crowdfunding. As a recent graduate and soon-to-be lawyer, it made me realize I need to keep tabs on this rapidly developing area.

In the meantime, I’m already looking forward to next year’s event. If you’d like to reach out to the NCFA or volunteer at a future event, become a member and reach out at NCFACanada.org.

Let me know in the comments: What’s your experience with crowdfunding? What would you like to see improved in Canada? Thanks for participating in the conversation.

Photo gallery

What Law Students Missed at #LegalLean Toronto

Legal innovation was brewing at the MaRS Discovery District this past Saturday, February 21st, 2015 at Toronto’s #LegalLean event. Over 70 attendees arrived to participate in “unconference” sessions moderated by MaRS’s Aron Solomon and Cognition LLP’s Jason Moyse.

The main purpose of the event: surveying the legal innovation landscape, with a focus on applying “lean” (waste-cutting and value-adding) principles to legal services.  The event played out in both real-time and on Twitter.

As a recent graduate, I couldn’t help but notice that there were not many law students at the event. The strongest law school turnout was from Michigan State University (MSU)’s ReInvent Law Laboratory. The sessions that followed were a glimpse at the legal landscape law students will soon find themselves in. This article is a quick summary of what law students missed: the people, the ideas, and the inspiration.

MaRS Discovery District

Who was there?

The only thing more important than the ideas discussed at the unconference were the people and interests represented there. If there was one thing law students missed at #LegalLean, it was the chance to meet and network with people who are solving tomorrow’s legal challenges.

The #LegalLean session leaders included Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s Ken Grady, Proskauer e-Discovery’s Dera Nevin, and Clio’s Joshua Lenon. If law students haven’t heard about new-model law firms, e-discovery services, or cloud-based practice management platforms, Ken, Dera, and Josh provided great introductions. (For anyone looking for more resources on these topics, reach out in the comments or through my contact form and I’ll send suggestions.)

The keynote speech was delivered by Mitch Kowalski, author of Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century. Mitch’s book should be required reading in law school. It was an eye-opener for me when I first read it, as a novella-style description of what law firms might look like one day. Other legal celebrities present included Peter Carayiannis, founder of Conduit Law and the Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Lawyer family of publications Gail J. Cohen. The ROSS founders were also there, the entrepreneurs using IBM’s Watson to perform legal research.

As for the audience, a show of hands revealed that about 70% were lawyers, 15% entrepreneurs, and 15% non-legal:

If you didn’t get a chance to go and would like a survey of the people who were there, the Twitter feed #LegalLean shows who was tweeting during the event.

Why was it special?

The #LegalLean conference featured some powerful ideas:

  • The way the event was organized “unconference style” meant that people off-site could follow along via the Twitter hashtag feed. Although not as participant-driven as it could have been, audience members could still tweet favourite quotes and moments from the conference. Particularly diligent attendees like Knowledge Management Consultant Connie Crosby helped create a written record of the presentations in digestible 140-character snippets. This isn’t a new trend, but it set the theme for the day. Conferences used to be done the same way legal advice was—advice would be thrown out into the audience and lost unless someone made it available on paper. Not any more. #LegalLean was captured on video, by live tweet, and through post-event blog articles like this one.
  • In a similar vein, Dera Nevin’s talk described that the main sticking point for legal innovation was the lack of categorization. Our transition from unstructured legal “stories” to structured searchable data has been painfully slow. Why are our judicial decisions still written in prose? Why are they not broken down by independent and dependent variable? Better data would allow better predictions, more certainty, and easier legal compliance. Law students should think about how they are capturing data at their future firms. Are they creating organizational learning, or forcing someone else to repeat the same work in the future?
  • Legal advice tends to be equally unstructured. Ken Grady described his visits to law firms all over the world, where he would ask for the likelihood of success on trademark litigation. The answer would invariably be “about 50/50.” Better data capture and processes in law firms should allow more accurate predictions. As lawyers, we need to step out of the grey and add value by providing more certainty for our clients.
  • Certainty and consistency brings us to one of the main ideas at #LegalLean. Jayson Moyse described “lean six sigma” as reducing the manufacturing process error rate below 3.4 defects per one million occurrences. That is an incredible achievement for manufacturing firms, often demanded in high-risk, high-value industries like aerospace. What if we brought that level of certainty to law? Through lean processes (a waste-cutting and value-adding discipline) it could be possible.

For a broader survey of the moments and ideas expressed at #LegalLean, the Canadian Lawyer published a tweet stream summary, and David Curle from Thomson Reuters published an excellent report here.

What was inspirational?

The people and ideas at #LegalLean were no doubt engaging. The best part was the inspiration. Law students and recent graduates like myself would have left the day feeling like we were entering world of opportunity. While walking down College Street in the snow, I couldn’t help but feel like it is the perfect time to be in (or graduating from) law school.

Right here in Toronto, there are groups working to make legal services more accessible, more predictable, and more useful for clients. Venture capital investment in legal startups is heating up.

Innovation centers like MaRS in Toronto and Communitech in Waterloo are close at hand. Exciting ventures like the IBM-Watson powered ROSS are evidence that beyond-the-edge legal startups can be created in Toronto. The legal innovation culture in Canada is still nascent. We don’t yet have institutions preaching this methodology, although Lakehead’s new law school is challenging the status quo, and the LPP program is changing the way lawyers are educated. 

We ended the event with an open Q&A. I asked the audience what inspired them about the conference; what idea they planned to take action on. The only answer from the crowd was an American law student from Michigan’s ReInvent Law Program. I think that speaks volumes.

Personally I’d like to see Canada lead the North American legal innovation sector. I didn’t get a chance to share my own inspiration from the event, but ask me and I’ll tell you. I came away from #LegalLean thinking differently, and I’m planning on shaking up the legal industry in my own way over the next few years.

Please get in touch if you’d like to share ideas, ask questions or collaborate. Thanks for reading.

#LegalLean Photo Gallery