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The Future of Law Lab – 134 years in the making

The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law newest addition

The average life expectancy in Canada is around 82 years or 81.95 to be specific. However, imagine a world where the life expectancy is 100 or beyond. Well, it exists.

The Canadian justice system and its associated institutions have chartered and established the way for centuries. The Supreme Court of Canada is 145 years old, the Court of Appeal for Ontario is 154 years old, and so on. The University of Toronto Faculty of Law is also one of these pioneers, with a 134-year history, having been established in 1887. This has led the law school through two world wars, and COVID-19 wouldn’t be its first pandemic, but rather its eleventh.

Yet, is it possible for an institution that is so grounded in history to be involved in discussions about the future?

The Faculty of Law has a compelling counter to that dogma, embodied in The Future of Law Lab, and there is no one better suited to join the defence than its Director, Joshua Morrison.

Official launch of The Future of Law Lab (Credit: Ultra Vires)

The Future of Law Lab officially launched and became a part of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law in September 2020, in order to bring innovation to the forefront of legal education.

Joshua explains,

“The Future of Law Lab was really the result of the former Dean’s (Edward Iacobucci) vision and support from our benefactor, Hal Jackman. There was a desire at the Faculty to bring together all the various innovation-related initiatives already in place, such as the intensives, courses offered, and faculty research - a hub for all innovation activity at the Faculty. The goal was to create an umbrella under which all these projects would come together in order to provide our students a focus point for real-world and leading academic exposure to legal innovation.”

It may seem that all areas of legal innovation have already been explored and there’s not much novel contribution that can be made to the profession, but Joshua has an alternative view:

“I like to think of the Future of Law Lab as the intersection of law, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. I’m a huge interdisciplinary advocate, and we won’t benefit if we’re off in our own silo.”

In true legal spirit, he continues by describing the three differentiating pillars of The Future of Law Lab, that he along with the support of Academic Advisor Anthony Niblett, firmly established:

“First, we provide foundational educational content, in the form of speaker series, academic panels, career events, and even symposiums. The focus of this area of service would be to expose students to information that they should be aware of. For example, alternative career legal paths, such as being a crypto blockchain lawyer. Second, we have a practical workshop side, where we host legal design workshops with a focus on design thinking, we’re even looking at having case simulations and pitch competitions in partnership with various Faculties at UofT. Finally, we have our co-curricular opportunities, which include clinical externships and summer opportunities where students can work directly with student startups and as in-house legal counsel. Within this third pillar, we also have our Future of Law Lab fellowship where students can work at a company for the first half of the summer, and then for the second half students build a business plan of their own. We had such bold ideas come out of the fellowship this year, with issues ranging all the way from environmental, social, and corporate governance to the creation of online legal marketplaces.”

Joshua’s enthusiasm for the cause stems from lived experience. He received his J.D. at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, then his LLM at The University of Toronto Faculty of Law, and served as a Lawyer and Innovation Director for SIËSDE Dispute Resolution Technologies, an interdisciplinary legal technology company that develops dispute resolution tools, system processes, and problem-solving methods.

He is most certainly one of the few lawyers who have had exposure to innovation in a practical, work environment and within an educational context.

He reflects,

“When I went to law school there were no innovation courses that I was aware of, there was nothing tech-focused in those days. I came from a business background and so I had my plans set on being a corporate lawyer, but I didn’t really find an area of law I was passionate about. I wasn’t resonating with the traditional legal career paths, so I went on to do my articling at the Law Practice Program at Ryerson University. I remember we had to do an innovation project where we would establish a plan on how to start our own sole proprietorship law firm. It then clicked for me. For the first time, I really understood how law was a business. One big thing about me is that I’m not a traditionalist and so when I encountered the question ‘Is there a way we can do this better?’, my interest sparked.”

Joshua’s conversion translated into a serious desire to pursue legal innovation as a career. He was subsequently invited to work at the Legal Innovation Zone, from where his plans sky-rocketed:

“I got to see the excitement of entrepreneurs first-hand, they had big dreams and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Thus, he is able to understand the needs of law students, but also the needs of the legal profession in its various forms, framing the approach of The Future of Law Lab:

“There is incredible value in experiential learning, where students get connected or are exposed to real-world situations. By meeting innovators and getting involved with startups you can understand their business problems first-hand, see how they solved them, but also get down to work. This is an invaluable experience that many lawyers don’t get until they’re five to six years into their legal career.”

This lack of exposure seems to partly be the reason why the theory of innovation isn’t actualizing into legal practice as fast as some might have hoped, a concern that Joshua is acutely aware of:

“I wouldn’t say that there is a gap between the theory of innovation and legal practice, it’s the adoption of innovative processes into your business that’s the hardest part. Lawyers are attracted to the concept of innovation and they are eager to try it, but integrating tools and techniques into their existing processes can be a struggle. Committing to change is a difficult thing, and often in times of crisis we revert to what we are most comfortable with.”

How do we ensure a seamless adoption? The Future of Law Lab has an enticing solution:

“We want to make sure that we are talking to students. Innovation isn’t just about tech, it can be about creating new business processes and even different mindsets. We want students to understand there are a multitude of ways to make an impact. We recently had a session on developing an innovative mindset, and the feedback from students was really positive, indicating that they are interested. Further, we create experiential opportunities, where students can try these different processes in closed environments before they face them in the real world. We also want to make good use of our legal design workshops so that students become engaged with these problem-solving techniques, ultimately making them a part of their toolbox.”

Part of this real-world exposure is a unique collaboration with The Hatchery, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Engineering incubator.

Joshua elaborates with excitement,

“We are able to drop students in an incubator setting, where they will be involved in creating products, developing these different business processes, and engaging with students from different fields. It will not only ease the adoption of these processes into the profession later on but also help the students learn how to communicate with people of various disciplines, providing great practice for when they have clients of their own.”

Despite Toronto being one of the world leaders in innovation, there is one gap that Joshua and his team are eager in filling:

“There’s not much academic content available in Canada around design thinking in the legal space. In the United States, there are a number of leaders, but in that regard, there is an opportunity in Canada that we can fill. So we plan to increase the offerings of our legal design workshops and intensives for our students. In addition, we are in the process of connecting with our alumni who are in alternative legal careers and engaging them as mentors. Often young lawyers don’t get that level of comfort with their mentors in the traditional practice setting, so maybe we can provide that in an academic context.”

With a bright light shining the way for The Future of Law Lab, it enters a world of endless possibilities, but one with stubborn challenges too. Nonetheless, it’s been done before and Joshua and his team know exactly what their plan is:

“We need bold thinking, and to be able to integrate these innovative processes in the workspace. We want to be pushing the discourse and to come together with not just the legal profession, but the wider community and dive into the most pressing questions on how we can make justice more accessible. That’s what sets us apart.”

“The past is always tense, the future perfect.” ― Zadie Smith


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