When you're rewriting the way law firms work you take a long view.

August 15, 2017
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Mark Tamminga was a bored high school student with a penchant for ideas, and then a university student studying French and Philosophy. As a young lawyer, Mark’s affinity for computers was quickly recognized, signalling a departure from a traditional law career and forever marking him as an agent of change. From the top echelons of the Canadian legal profession, Mark is reinventing the law firm/client relationship. We spoke to Mark in his historic offices of Gowling WLG, situated on one of the busiest corners in Hamilton, Ontario.

Mark, as the Leader of Innovation Initiatives at the international law firm Gowling WLG, you’re what I would consider to be a change agent. In fact, one of my favorite quotes of yours is, “Change is as easy as falling off a log.” What do you mean by that?

Mark Tamminga: Saying, “Change is hard” is an easy default. It’s cheap to say change is hard. Managers say, our people are so used to doing it a certain way. We’ll never get them to change. I never understood that. I just ask people to pull out their cell phones and say, “When did that happen? How did that happen? Tell me how hard that was. Did someone force you to use this new phone and make you give up on your old way of communicating?” Business communication moved to BlackBerrys in a relative heartbeat. People were then skeptical of smartphones, the iPhone, Android phones, even BlackBerry’s new phones. That skepticism was also completely unfounded. If it’s the right change, it actually can be as simple as falling off a log. 

When is change hard?

Change really is not that difficult unless you’re forcing people to do things they don’t understand for reasons that are opaque. Then your chances of success are slim. You also need to have management buy-in because the right kind of change does take resources. You need to be able to invest in a methodology. You have to invest in teaching and you need your people to to see clearly that the new tricks will work really well. You have to win over hearts and minds and sometimes that’s a ground war. It starts with management commitment to the process. The social game then is to do it in a way that makes it acceptable for the special context of your local culture, and that may not be the same for every law firm because the cultures are different. Law firms are inherently social. Understanding how hard you can push requires a lot of sensitivity to what’s going on.

Since we are sitting and chatting in your beautiful offices in Hamilton, I have to ask, why here and not Toronto?

What Hamilton offers us as a large law firm is the opportunity to provide legal services at a slightly lower cost. Large law firms have made a lot of hay out of moving some of their operations to Halifax or to other lower cost centers in the U.K. and the U.S. We’ve been here for more than 20 years and we’ve exploited the fact that Hamilton has such capable expertise, so many good people who don’t want to go to Toronto and are willing to do what they do at an attractive rate. You wouldn’t want to create a Mini-Me of Toronto – in other words, a large general purpose law firm in what amounts to a smaller office. That’s not the best use of resources and it’s not how we want to be in this community. For the most part, we’re not competing against the local law firms who provide those services exceptionally well. Hamilton is very well-lawyered, if you will. But what we have here is the ability to create a low cost center of excellence specializing in portfolio service delivery and a number of other service areas that we can provide to our clients at a favorable price.

Give me a snapshot of where you see Hamilton right now.

We find Hamilton to be a place that is really conducive to doing business. As a city, it is in itself rising to the challenge. You see that in the wonderful new downtown Hamilton Health Sciences building and the revitalization of livable neighbourhoods around the city. These are extremely promising developments in the history of the urban environment that is Hamilton. You see it also happening in Burlington. There’s a better understanding of how to revive what had been primarily an industrial economy and make it much more of a knowledge and service delivery economy.

So as an active member in the Bay Area, where do you see innovation and where can we grow from here?

Innovation has definitely risen over the course of the 20 years I’ve been here. I see an appetite for innovation and change.

Do you think that appetite has stayed the same or is it increasing?

Hamilton has an ambition which it didn’t have 20 years ago. It’s got a growing sense of civic pride. These things become really important from an urbanist perspective. It’s beginning to think sensibly about public transit, which is essential to the health of the city. It’s the lifeblood of the city. How do we move people around? It’s got wonderful examples of exceptional innovation leadership in Innovation Factory and other examples of the incubator environments that we’re seeing.

So Hamilton is rising to the occasion?

The models are out there and Hamilton has not shirked in its implementation of those models. It’s really encouraging to see that. As a firm we are involved with Innovation Factory and we’re very much a part of the Lion’s Lair sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and Innovation Factory.   

That’s a smart connection, because in a few years you’ll be looking for more innovative thinkers.

We provide prizes to the winners by way of services in kind and that provides us with a conduit into those burgeoning startups. We’re exploring the creation of legal kits for startups where we provide a packaged version of the foundation legal documents a new company needs.

As you know, our focus at Influence Magazine is on the human story behind the business success. Talk to me a little bit about, let’s say, teenage Mark. Were you always a guy who was interested in change or figuring things out? What kind of kid were you?

Not really, where I am now is a series of accidents. I’ve not been somebody who has a five-year plan. I follow the opportunities that have been given to me and it’s worked out really well. I was really just another bored high school kid watching too much television in the seventies. I went to school in the States and I found that interesting. I focused on Philosophy and French and went to Europe.

So how does a bored high school kid who watched a lot of TV end up in law school?

It was really more of a default thing for me because it had never been an ambition of mine, but as a humanities student with no interest in going to grad school, the law seemed like a good fit. I got my MBA at the same time.

So where does the passion for automation and technology come in?

My MBA was the first introduction to automation and information technology, both databases and word processing. That got me into the guts of it, the behind the scenes stuff, and sparked something. I had a facility for it and I learned about it quickly.   

You combined it all and ended up at a law firm?

I was recognized very early by my mentors as the guy who knew about computers. In the mid-eighties, when I began practice, the firm had very, very early CPM machines, Sony’s actually. To put it into perspective, all the impact printers had to be kept under noise reduction cowlings. At one point, I was at a computer using its basic word processing program. One of the senior partners thought I was doing secretarial work just because I was at a computer, typing like crazy. The cultural shift for me happened right then, because I managed to make the point that I was indeed doing legal work and I took the time to explain my process. My point was accepted. I might have been a little cocky in the delivery, but I did receive an enormous amount of encouragement. I was given a tremendous amount of room to expand and out of that came the initial automation systems that we still use today. Those systems worked and because of that, I got the encouraging feedback that fuels the ongoing innovation.

So the young lawyer who was marked as the “computer guy” took it and ran with it…

Yes, it became a self-fulfilling process and it became my job. It became what I did. It became the core of my career, I’m still dealing with those systems in their current manifestations which are a science fiction version of what they were 20 years ago. But I understand them still because I built every piece and I’m supported by professional programmers who can get me out of trouble when my amateur self-taught efforts bung things up. [Laughs.] It’s very much a collaborative effort. I still guide that effort and it’s deeply satisfying to me because it’s like being paid to do crossword puzzles or putting little ships in bottles. I actually do get that kind of a buzz out of it. I’m very absorbed by it, I find it fascinating. The firm encourages that kind of experimentation. And now we’re trying to elaborate on that model through the building of an R&D facility where we continually ask, I wonder if we did this, would it maybe work? 

So you’re heading a law firm that’s jumping into a culture of change which is usually the domain of startups? 

We have to learn how to fail better, but there’s not as much tolerance for failure in a law firm as there is in the startup culture. It’s an interesting dynamic we’re working our way through. But we’re at least engaged in the discussion! We’re exploring what it means to inoculate startup culture into such a fussy old profession as the law.

The buzz, the excitement, you still feel that now. I love that. Tell me what you’re looking forward to and what you’re excited about for the future.   

Yeah. I mean, we’re at the beginnings of this. All of the software I’m talking about is, in real terms, at an infantile stage. This is the very beginning of an exponential curve. If you think about it, any exponential curve is a horizontal line for a long time until you get that inflection point, what Ray Kurzweil calls the second half of the chessboard. We’re almost there. That’s going to be interesting, because then we’re going to take a ride on a rocket.

Sounds like incredible times ahead.

There’s no predicting how it’s going to play out. I like to think that I’m going to have a front row seat to it, but there’s no reason to think that I might – I could get bucked off! We do not know where this is going to go, because we are very much at the early stages. Look at machine understanding of language, which is now moving very quickly into a realm where it actually has utility in our business.

Do you see any immediate use in the law profession?

Perhaps it’s a Watson-like cognitive machine that can actually look at a body of information such as case law and draw conclusions or extract information. This would take the place of someone like me because I can’t read 12,000 cases. I mean, even if I could I wouldn’t want to. And that’s conceivably simple for a machine, it can be done in seconds. A machine could come to conclusions a lawyer may never have thought of.

So that step in technology development would trickle, no, rush, down to every industry, including law firms?

We are at the beginning of the era of machine learning, or cognitive computing, and the applications are endless. Think about the selling of a mall with 300 leases. Well, each one of those has to be examined. Classically, that’s been done by a young associate who would get through the first or second or third lease and kind of go, Okay, I know what this is about but I have 297 to go. That’s a human issue. If the reader is electronic it will be able to give you a spreadsheet of all of your like clauses, all of your terminations, your renewals and highlight the outliers. Pretty much exactly what we hope the bored associate would do, but in seconds.

Some people would say the machines will make mistakes.

We can’t have an intolerance for mistakes made by a machine when we certainly allow for human error. I mean, the bored associate is definitely going to make mistakes and increasingly so as the drudgery deepens.

With machine learning, the ability to understand large document sets is at least on par with the human reader who’s bored and will inevitably surpass even the sharpest human reader –  at least for routine matters. You can probably expect a period not even in ten years but five where we will see this type of technology becoming conventional.

Will it require a new type of “lawyer” to manage the new “law firm” you are creating? What are you looking for in your future legal team members?

We need to think about the type of person who will excel in the future. And it’s happening faster than we imagine. There’s a truth to the adage, we always overestimate the change that will happen in three years and underestimate the change that will happen in ten.

So five years from now?

We know that five years from now law practice is going to be a very different game. What do you do about that? What does that mean for your hiring? Do you continue to hire associates and teach them to saw wood into sawdust? Or do you start thinking about hiring legal technologists who understand the domain but are able to work with these new tools as  knowledge engineers. They don’t have to be lawyers. They need to be able to elicit information that can be embodied in rules. And so this knowledge professional is going to be increasingly important. How do we take what’s inside a good lawyer’s head, what their instincts are, their gut feel and of course their expertise, advice-giving ability...how can that be modelled in software? There’s still no picture as to how insight is going to work or that you’ll have thinking machines, but you’ll get a material chunk of the way there and that’s probably enough to really mess this business up.

Advice to someone going into law or business or philosophy, what traits do they need to, as you say, ride the rocket?

I think it does come down to exceptional communication skills, which is a human trait. I look for someone who knows the legal domain. Is able to describe it, write about it and distill it. That’s a gift. Not everybody has that.

Explain that a little more for us.

Think about it this way. You know what I know because, well, I just know it, but I don’t know how to describe to you some, or even any, of the steps that caused me to come to a given conclusion the relies on that knowledge. We need people that can unpack what subtle knowledge is, and do so with clarity. Logically, that is someone who can think rigorously and write well. The humanities are paradoxically really important.

So great communicators?

Yes, plus, you need to have this almost ridiculous sense of detail because when you do start to resolve things into rule sets, those rule sets become really busy really quickly. And sometimes they’re really fragile because you may have to decide whether it’s a jurisdiction first or an interest rate first, and if you get it wrong you break the whole structure.

So thinkers and good writers?

Yeah. And they need to be creative.

That’s counter intuitive because right now, many parents are directing kids in a different direction. I actually feel worried when a kid tells me they’re getting a BA. We think, What kind of job are you going to get?   

Yeah, but it’s really about a combination of the technical and the humanities. And in my world, from my personal experience, the ability to communicate clearly is incredibly important.

And you have that combination?

It’s something I’ve been able to actually manifest in the work I do. I have the ability to both understand my domain and embody it in software. So I’m a combination of a domain expert and a knowledge engineer. That has put me in this place. We want other people like that. And we certainly want people who are more capable than me.

A new type of team?

We don’t need people reading 300 leases. We need someone to describe those first three to five leases properly and give the rest of job over to a machine. The whole job could be done in a tenth of the time.

The change you’ve been spearheading at Gowling WLG isn’t just a little tweak here and there, it’s an overhaul of how you see law firms collaborating in real time with full transparency between your entire firm and clients. Walk me through this adventure.

I became the Leader of Innovation Initiatives about four years ago, after I had spent a term as the managing partner of our Hamilton office. I have a history of working with software, working on automation, coming up with what I like to call “machine tools” for lawyers.

“Machine tools” sounds like something I’d hear about on a shop floor. It’s surprising to hear in a legal firm.

Yes, that term, and my way of thinking, definitely looks more toward the manufacturing and business models of how you get work done versus the classical professional services delivery model. Law firms have historically worked on a time and materials basis. The way law firms currently make their money is, for the most part, by selling time. Now, there have always been practices that actually sold products, things that you would pay a price for, fixed fee arrangements. But over the last five years or so it’s become clear that the shift in bargaining power has moved to clients, as it should, and clients have insisted more and more on predictability.

So clients are a driving force behind innovation?

And rightfully so. Clients are looking at these arbitrarily complex legal matters with a view to saying there has to be a structure you can apply to them.

Tell me about “storytelling practices,” which I’ve heard you refer to in the past.

What we’ve also recognized is that some of those principles can be applied to what I call storytelling practices. Whether it’s a large piece of litigation or a complex merger and acquisition, the traditional route would be to say, “Well, you know, we just simply have to get into it and see where it ends up. We’ll just charge you more time.” That’s easiest. And that’s worked in the architectural, accounting and engineering profession in the past. But a generation ago those professions looked at it a different way and created a system that said, “It’s going to cost you “x” for your audit, “x” for your building or “x” for your tax returns.

They added predictability to the equation?

And now, as a law firm, we need to be able to say with some predictability, even in those enormously complex and unpredictable practices, that there is likely to be a result like this and be able to predict the price and manage it. To get to that point, our first order of business was to capture the expertise that lives in the heads of so many of our lawyers and effectively elicit that information so it’s permanent and it is no longer something that could just walk out the door. But we also recognize that with this expertise in hand, we could also apply classic project management methodology to complex practices. If you can build a dome stadium for a fixed price, you should be able to do litigation or a corporate takeover for a fixed price.

You really did harness what was an eight-legged monster and tamed it to a degree.

By employing a simplified version of project management, or legal project management, we built a methodology that would fit our culture and allow our lawyers to apply structure to what had never really been structured before.

Briefly bring me up to speed on the WLG part of Gowling.

Through a combination with a large U.K. law firm, we have just become a global law firm bringing with it the possibility of getting much larger and higher-stakes work.

Shelley McQuade, the past chair of the Burlington Chamber, has often said to me, “Systems create capacity.” You created capacity through a new product named Practical LPM. What is it? 

Even before the merger, we created Practical LPM. It’s a legal project management methodology. Using Practical LPM we can say that it’s likely that at least the first few steps of every case are going to unfold in a certain way because we’ve done a large number of these types of files before. We can plan and price at least the parts we know about for sure.

This isn’t your first rodeo and because of that your firm run through the steps efficiently.

Clients hire us as experts because they know we have experience with the problem or challenge they are facing right now. It may be our client’s first business and it may be the only time they ever do it, but the lawyers who engage in this do it every week. We rarely come across something we haven’t done before. So the idea is to create a model template to match the legal processes our clients often need. It could be the purchase of a business or a shareholder remedy lawsuit. If it’s a process we repeat often, we scope a template for it.

You’ve not only created processes for in-house use, you’ve opened the doors wide to your clients as well?

Yes, what we did was embed the template into software that’s web enabled and that allows for communications among the participants that live within the context of the projects. Communications need to live with the record. So you can socialize legal work in the modern sense. Think of a Facebook or LinkedIn devoted to your legal matter. You can socialize these projects by having everybody engaged in a very transparent way. That shines a lot of light on the practice so that people no longer feel they are just laying bricks, they’re now building a building. That larger perspective is much more informative for the people who are running the project and the participants. It’s much more rewarding because participants know that they’re part of something bigger than this brick they’re just putting down.

Before we finish our interview, talk to us about some of the earliest computers you worked with as a student. 

In terms of my background, I’m a Philosophy and French major and I actually failed Calculus. So I’m not that mathematically inclined although I got involved very early in automation. I had an MBA from York and had access to some of the very early remote computing devices. In 1982 I was working from home writing my senior thesis as an MBA student. I was using an old remote terminal that was attached to an acoustic phone coupler for 350 baud connections to this DEC VAXT computer at the Faculty of Administrative Studies at York. The phone would be busy for four hours at a stretch while I’d be typing, waiting for the cursor to catch up with my keystrokes. And so I’ve always been interested in computers. I’m largely self-taught and got involved in the programming of these tools, primarily at the portfolio level.

Mark, it’s been an absolute pleasure spending time with you and talking about the bigger picture of change and innovation. Thank you so much.

My pleasure.

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