When e-mail exchanges between dozens of its lawyers became too much, Torys LLP created a protocol for who should and shouldn't be copied on messages to keep unnecessary reading to a minimum.
This is one of the new processes developed at the law firm's Legal Services Centre (LSC), a small outpost in Halifax with low overhead that completes high-volume recurring legal work while finding ways to do these tasks faster and for less. In an industry where time is money, these minutes can add up to dollars in savings for the firm and its clients. Torys' experiment is being widely watched in legal circles at a time when law firms are eager to contain costs.
"Most lawyers, including us, never took the time to even start thinking about process," managing partner Les Viner said. These days, they don't have much of a choice.
Law firms in Canada are under pressure from their clients to be more prudent, flexible and transparent with their pricing. Competition has heated up – and not just from other firms. Companies' legal departments have ballooned in size and upstarts and accounting firms are now in the mix, too.
In search of lower costs, Torys tried outsourcing certain tasks to lower-wage countries such as India. But that didn't work for many reasons, including poor quality and a lack of control, Mr. Viner said.
Seen as a novel approach for a "white-shoe firm" like Torys, the LSC is a made-in-Canada answer to outsourcing. These lawyers help Torys' clients with tasks such as due diligence, contract review and corporate reorganizations.
The LSC operates on a fixed-fee basis and is staffed by lawyers who aren't hustling to bill more hours and expand their client base because they aren't on the partnership track. Their work originates in Torys' other offices.
"There are two choices: Give more discounts or lower your fees, or change the way you do business," Mr. Viner added. "This is a big change for a top-flight law firm in the way we think."
It's a shift for clients, too, and has taken longer than Torys anticipated to get the operation off the ground.
The LSC opened last January with four lawyers led by partner Christopher Fowles. When the idea was announced in July, 2014, Mr. Viner said that the office would quickly grow to 15 lawyers.
Fast forward 20 months and the LSC is staffed with just six of the firm's 342 lawyers.
Initially, Mr. Viner said the plan was to quickly expand the team in the hopes that business would follow. Along the way, the strategy shifted to tie growth to client demand.
Asked whether the Halifax outpost is profitable, Mr. Viner said: "We don't measure it. It is not unprofitable, but in a firm of our size, six to 20 lawyers aren't going to move the dial one way or another, frankly."
He insists that success is about more than the bottom line. It is also about client satisfaction and positive word of mouth.
Amy Hastings, an in-house lawyer at startup Perk.com Inc., is one of those happy customers. "It seemed like a small-firm approach at a big firm," she said, after the LSC handled due diligence for a recent acquisition.
That's no accident.
Mr. Fowles met with his colleagues at Torys who had worked on due diligence to map out the best way to do it, opting for a methodical approach to roll out across the firm. These checklists and process maps "are eventually going to save us time because they are going to make sure the focus is right," Mr. Fowles said.
Robert Aziz, chief legal counsel at Oxford Properties Group, said only a small percentage of the work he outsources to Torys is handled by the firm's Halifax office.
"I do believe this idea has merit and will work," Mr. Aziz said. "It may just take time."