This past week, I had the fortunate opportunity to interview a Toronto-based legal innovator. Amer Mushtaq, a lawyer at Formative LLP and an Osgoode alum, recently launched www.YouCounsel.ca, an online course to help self-represented litigants make their way through the small claims court system. I had the chance to speak with Amer about his background, the inspiration for You Counsel, and what he sees for the legal industry going forward. As an avid follower of anything tech, law, and business, it was a great first-hand look into new ways to address old legal problems.
The first thing I spoke with Amer about was his background, and his experience at law school. Like me, Amer had found himself less than impressed with Osgoode’s academic-over-economical approach to legal education. He quickly tuned in to the lack of business savvy in the legal community, and within a couple years of achieving his degree, was off Bay Street and into private practice.
Cautious about Amer’s obvious enthusiasm over jumping off the “beaten path” of a legal career, I reminded him that many students, drowning in debt, have no choice but to grab whatever position is offered. To my pleasant surprise, Amer told me that he left his firm still deep in the red, but through his independent efforts managed to erase his debt faster than he would have on his former salary anyway.
Speaking about You Counsel, I first asked Amer about his motivation for the project. At its core, You Counsel is a series of instructional videos explaining the process for initiating, participating in, and winning a small claims court claim. The product isn’t intended to reinvent the wheel, nor does it dazzle with brilliant new technology, but it does address a key gap. As Amer stated, motivating him was the lack of clear, concise legal information for self-represented litigants at small claims court. It’s a gap that, intellectually, is not overwhelmingly difficult to resolve, but practically, does require time, effort, and commitment.
Amer has made that investment, creating a product that provides key Information in a digestible format. In his own words, the videos are designed “to be followed by anybody, taking a market that’s already there and empowering people when they act within it.” In terms of pricing, at $200 for the 26-video set, You Counsel is comparable to other video instructional programs, and unquestionably a bargain compared to legal consultations.
Of course, with the reduced price point and friendly online format, You Counsel does also encounter some limitations. Video tutorials are great for viewing forms and explaining the basics, but they don’t engage the client or ensure that the lessons have indeed been absorbed. Amer has done his best to mitigate this issue by providing a forum for users at www.youcounselforums.ca. The program is also not meant to be personalized, and does not provide much-coveted “individual advice.” Amer himself admits that skirting the line between “legal advice” and “legal information” is an evolving challenge, and one in which there is no certainty. Pressed about potential liability, Amer answered like a true innovator: “of course there are potential issue, but that’s just part of it!”
Regarding the future of the industry, I asked Amer his opinion on automation, and whether those predicting the “robo-pocalypse” are getting ahead of themselves. Amer replied with an emphatic “no.” In his opinion, the hype is real, and there’s no reason that automation and technology won’t completely redefine the profession. The outlook gives me added appreciation for his project. Though automation may one day completely overtake us, businesses like You Counsel show that the path to that future is not exclusively full of alien technologies and lost jobs.
You Counsel is the embodiment of steady progress – an established technology, a straightforward legal need, and a simple solution. To me, this is just the sort of improvement the legal system needs. While not overwhelming with technological superiority, Amer is also not mired in traditional ideas of legal education and practice. With so much being written about new legal technologies and industry-wide changes (e.g. contraction), I hope stories and ideas like Amer’s will shine through. They are a good example of positive progress in an uncertain landscape, and the potential to mobilize new solutions without redrawing the whole map.