Spiegel Sohmer is a mid-sized law firm based in Montreal that specializes in tax law, intellectual property, business law, litigation, real estate, and succession. At its core, the firm is a mom and pop shop dedicated to providing services to those people who are underrepresented because of their cultural diversity, because of their ethnicity, or because of their religious beliefs. In this episode, Bernie Toledano, our Head of Marketing, spoke with Neil Oberman, the firm’s innovation lead and a shareholder in the civil and commercial litigation group. With 25 years’ experience, Neil is recognized for his talent as a litigation lawyer and regularly represents his diverse clientele before the Court of Québec, the Superior Court, and the Quebec Court of Appeal. Neil is also an avid proponent of using technology to help lawyers be more efficient and spend more time on the substantive practice of law.
ZERØ: Can you tell us about the history and culture of Spiegel Sohmer?
Neil: Spiegel Sohmer is what we like to call a mom and pop shop. Basically, we recognize that our sole preoccupation is to render great personalized service to those in the community who reflect who we are as attorneys. We’re from an ethnic background: the firm was started by Jewish lawyers in the province of Quebec over 50 years ago, and the firm has always provided services to those people who are underrepresented because of their cultural diversity, because of their ethnicity, or because of their religious beliefs. And we’ve actually marketed ourselves as being the lawyers next door. And because of this, we’ve been able to grow with a variety of different ethnic groups that were the first generation in Quebec, and then passed on their businesses to their children. And now we have a very flourishing business in those milieus that were, at the onset of our business, really underrepresented. At Spiegel Sohmer, you come in for a coffee and you leave with a will.
ZERØ: How would you say that Spiegel Sohmer’s roots distinguish it from other law firms?
Neil: Law is really a customer-service based business. Because we’re not a national law firm, or what they call the sister group of law firms [in Canada], we have to distinguish ourselves based on providing cutting-edge service at a good price, with good technology to support that service. As a smaller firm, we’re able to be more innovative in the technology sphere, because we’re less encumbered by bureaucracy and less encumbered by multiple layers of committees. This means that we can deploy technology in a quick and efficient manner in order to reflect the needs of our clients. So in that regard, it makes us very competitive. Although we’re not part of the Canadian family of larger firms, because of the reach of our intellectual skill sets, as well as our innovation in technology, we play with the big guys, but we don’t suffer from their shortcomings, shall we say?
ZERØ: Can you tell us more about the role of technology in the firm’s innovation efforts?
Neil: Ultimately, I think we’re living now the experience of good planning when it comes to technology. Since the unfortunate situation revolving around COVID-19 began, our firm was able to deploy its robust remote workstations to all of our employees, so that we were in effect able to stay operational during this pandemic (which is ongoing as of the publication of this podcast). This demonstrated that the planning that I implemented for our firm was well-placed. Almost a year prior to the pandemic, we had already decided to shift our orientation to mobile working, as it relates to being able to work robustly from external locations. So whenCOVID-19 appeared, it was not necessary for our firm to react. Our firm simply had to enhance its deployment, and then institute more robust policies regarding use of out-of-the-office technology. In retrospect, I think we were very well-prepared. Even during the pandemic, I was able to negotiate a very interesting relationship with ZERØ, which will help our firm become even more cutting-edge.
So I would say that innovation is technology, and technology is innovation. But the inability to implement technology because of bureaucratic limitations and inability to make final determinations on what products to use really hampers the ability to grow and to be successful. I’m very much an immediate thinker and an immediate doer. I like to plan, but I don’t like to over plan, and I certainly don’t like to procrastinate about making decisions, especially decisions that have to be made fairly quickly, in an environment that constantly changes.
ZERØ: Why did the firm decide to purchase ZERØ, and how do you see our technology fitting into your mobile workflows?
Neil: ZERØ works well into our long-term strategy on the basis that as people work from different locations, they need to have the ability to file their emails into a document management system. Even the definition of remote work is changing. A traditional remote worker can be somebody sitting in his or her house in a sort of a stagnant position, simply doing his or her daily work, which effectively replaces the office with a home office. But in today’s reality, the home office is not the only office. The car is the office. The chalet is the office. Your in-laws’ home is the office. The park is the office. Even walking the dog is an office. So ZERØ’s product provides a very good tool in order to achieve a sort of seamless link between those different elements: the ability to file your emails from your iPhone into a document management system that uses specified groupings of categories, correspondence, proceedings, memos, and the like. This actually facilitates a more efficient process for the staff and the lawyers to be able to get a handle on their administration, because if you’re sloppy in the office, you’re going to be sloppy out of the office. ZERØ helps us avoid continuing this bad behavior of not being efficient and being organized and keeps lawyers focused on law.
ZERØ: Are there other technologies that you think are essential to succeed as a law firm in this changing environment?
Neil: The most basic necessity for a remote worker is obviously having a very good laptop. Not only a laptop: desktops or tablets will suffice too. But the key elements of any of those hardware categories is that they be robust and be updated and have the best of the latest platforms, including Windows 10, or any versions of an iPhone or a tablet that’s updated. This is important because if you’re using old technology, you will not be as efficient.
Fortunately, in our particular case, all of our lawyers are provided with very up-to-date laptops. We also have a very robust system that allows for the maintenance of all of our laptops on a seamless basis. So I think that’s key to being efficient as a remote worker.
ZERØ: So what do you think will be some of the major changes to the lives and workflows of lawyers in light of this pandemic? You spoke a bit about how basically the office is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, but what are some of the practical implications of this new reality?
Neil: Technology is one thing, but there’s one piece of technology that we haven’t talked about: the human brain. The human brain is the most advanced technology and yet the most limited technology. You can have the best laptop, the best internet connection, and the best work tools, but if your hardware, what’s in your mind, is not well-situated, then your hardware is only an extension of your finger. What we’ll need to do in this post-pandemic era is retrain those who feel that they can’t be working unless they’re working in the way that they’re used to working: in an office with a wall and a window at a desk. If you can’t retrain your staff and your associates to understand the flexibility in this new environment, then your biggest impediment will be not the technological equipment, but the human equipment.
I’m a true believer in a concept called the “Lead, Don’t Follow” philosophy. It’s very common among lawyers, especially litigators, for people start to talk about a certain fact as being true. And then every subsequent lawyer takes it to be true. And then throughout the history of your file, everybody’s repeated the fact, but you don’t actually know if it’s true. So just as I don’t practice law by following, I don’t practice technology by following. I like to lead, and part of leadership is to instill in your employees and your associates the need to think outside of the box and the need to retrain their methodologies. As a result, most of our hard-earned energy is spent with millennials, trying to help them understand that the world is a different place. Technology is a good tool, but the better tool is you. Ultimately, clients hire a lawyer, not a computer. While relying solely on the computer to do the work of the lawyer is maybe something that might come to fruition somewhere in the future through AI, people today are paying for legal services and for experience, so I think the future will be bright if the people who are directing the future direct those to use the technology in a way that makes life easier, but also continue to render quality service in accordance with professional codes of conduct and existing custom and milieu.
ZERØ: Do you think law schools should be providing more training to their students to help them be prepared for this reality?
Neil: The reality is that law schools need to train their students to make them understand that the practice of law is not about opening a book and looking for a case or citing a statute. It’s about dealing with people. And you bring your personality to your profession. So if you have poor traits as a person, and then you go to law school and you enhance those poor traits, then you’ll bring those traits into your practice. Law school is an opportunity not only to enhance your intellectual knowledge, but also to enhance your personal knowledge and your personal skills. The diversity of law schools is an opportunity for people who perhaps not been exposed to a diverse social, economic background of people, for example, some people have never dealt with certain types of ethnic groups or religious groups.
I also think the job of the law school is not only to train good lawyers, but it’s to graduate good people, and to give them an opportunity. Once you change the mind, you change the structure. You have to win the hearts and minds of people, not their computers and not their iPhones. So ultimately, it’s symbiotic. If people don’t want to change, then it doesn’t matter the technology you put before them, they won’t use it properly. So ultimately, there has to be a balance between the intellectual social needs of the operators and the physical needs, or into the technology needs of those operators. And those two are separate and apart. But I believe if you can get people to lead in life, you’ll get them to lead and technology.
ZERØ: What concrete advice would you give to young lawyers who are looking to reshape their brains and learn more about technology and how they can incorporate it into their legal practice in a constructive way?
Neil: The first thing I would tell young lawyers is that the practice of law is challenging but very rewarding at the same time. But you have to be prepared to sacrifice. Unfortunately, there are sacrifices in everything that we do. Sometimes some sacrifices are greater, and some are less great. For example, young lawyers need to understand that the technology that we provide to them is to liberate them from being tied to a desk, so it allows them to balance their social and emotional needs with their workday. But in order to do that, they have to be prepared to make certain sacrifices Unfortunately, sometimes some associates are not prepared to make those sacrifices in our particular firm. We approach our associates as family members—as I told you, we’re a mom and pop organization. We’re not some big multinational law firm that sort of doesn’t know what Tony and Jimmy are doing. We know and we address the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of our associates in a way to make them more efficient as lawyers, to help them be more cooperative with their colleagues and to enhance the legal community.
Just as socialization starts at home, with your parents, lawyers need to mentor younger lawyers to socialize them to understand the changing platform of the legal profession. And that’s something we at Spiegel Sohmer strive to do. We’re not always successful, obviously. But the real goal is to create a good environment for young lawyers to be successful as professionals, as human beings, and in the social realm as well, because lawyers have an obligation not only to their clients but to the community at large. While it’s very difficult, we’re challenging our young associates to be better people.
ZERØ: It’s great that you have this framework of mentorship.
Neil: Ultimately, success is not always about being successful. It’s about making the proper decisions to set you up to ultimately be successful. I have failed at many things, but my failure is my greatest success. Why? Because I learned what not to do. Law is about trial and error as well. You never want to try and make an error that affects your client. But the reality is, as long as there’s a third party making a decision about someone’s future, there’s always the possibility for error.
So as much as I want to talk about the theory of training the young associates, the reality is the young associates have to learn what not to do. And as a mentor, I can tell you that I’m very, very impressed with a lot of our associates. And there are a lot of great young lawyers in the media today. But the reality is, to be a good professional means that you have to try different things. And when you try different things, you’re not always going to be successful. If you’re not successful, it doesn’t mean you should pack up your bags and try something else. It means you should dig deeper and look to where you can find the solutions. And you’ll come up with better solutions because law is always growing and it’s symbiotic with your environment. So what you do today might be good today, but it may not be good in a week from now, because the law is changing. COVID-19 has really challenged the existing structure of the legal system, at least here in the province of Quebec, and the province has adapted. If you don’t adapt, you don’t succeed.
ZERØ: So my last question is the one that I asked all of our guests, and it hearkens back to the name of this podcast: what is your vision for the law firms of the future?
Neil: In order to have a successful law firm in the future, the most important thing will be to have the appropriate baseline technology. Today, if a law firm doesn’t have remote working and doesn’t have remote timekeeping and doesn’t have robust document management systems and doesn’t have video and IP telephony, then they don’t have the basics. And if they don’t have the basics, then they don’t really have the infrastructure to grow their business. And even the small firms today, because technology and the price of technology have gone down significantly over the years, have the ability to sort of challenge the bigger organizations by having the same technology, obviously scaled to our particular needs. But we’re not locked out of the technology realm because we’re not a multinational law firm with offices in a variety of different countries. So the greatest ability for the lawyer to succeed today is the ability to acquire, implement, and maintain his or her technology base. Ultimately with the robust available tools, most of these law firms can and will succeed.
I also like to say that when required, you have to learn to improvise, adapt, and overcome. And if you can apply those three principles to your practice, and that would include the use of technology, then success is possible and is enhanced. The inability to improvise, adapt, and overcome stagnates your business and leaves you open to failure. And failure is not always the worst thing, but constant failure leads to constant failure. And that’s not something that here, at Spiegel Sohmer, we want to do. And as an individual, I want to succeed. I want to set an example for my child and my family to say, look, I can be home a little bit more, because I’m using the technology in a responsible manner to try and make my life better. Ultimately, it’s about having that balance in life that makes you more successful. That doesn’t mean if you make more money, you have more success; or if you win more cases, you must be more successful. I look at myself, and I see myself today, and I’m not the same person I was 25 years ago. And that’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a reality check that we as people have to learn to adapt. And, as I said to you, technology can be used appropriately or inappropriately. But for me, as the technology leader in the firm, I see a lot of great things. And I’m hoping that this COVID-19 experience has taught some organizations that they need to be innovative in their technology.