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Taking the plunge:

by Drew Hasselback

Shelby Austin, LLB’05, took a big business gamble in January 2010. Although she had just made partner at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, a perch many young corporate lawyers in Toronto would crave, she decided to leave the firm and launch her own legal outsourcing business. 

“The day I quit was a really weird day. I couldn't actually believe I went through with it,” Austin said. “But once you do it, you can’t take it back.”

Things would get weirder still. Cash was tight in those first few months at her start-up, ATD Legal Services Professional Corp. She needed clients and when organizers suddenly announced an upcoming conference on legal outsourcing, she embraced the event as a chance to get the word out. She was too broke to buy her own ticket to the show, so she talked her way in by landing a gig as a featured speaker. 

That’s when her plan hit a snag. Organizers cancelled the outsourcing conference due to a lack of interest. Austin had left the security of her Bay St. law firm partnership to launch a new legal venture that, at least in those first few months, seemed to excite no one.  

“I remember, in 2010 and 2011, the question was always, ‘Why would you do this?’,” she said. “I took all of my savings and put them into this company. I had all of this stuff in this big space. And I thought, wouldn't it be so embarrassing if nobody ever called us?”

Those initial doubts proved unnecessary. Clients would eventually call. Legal process outsourcing would catch on quickly in Toronto and Austin’s start-up would take its place alongside several across the country. 

The concept is simple. Rather than have large, high-rent Bay St. firms handle all their legal work, Canadian corporate clients instead send their repetitive or “commoditized” work to outsourcing firms. Often based outside the downtown core, outsourcing firms run modest offices that keep costs to a minimum, so they can charge those corporate clients much cheaper rates. 

ATD Legal Services started turning a profit after only six months. By 2013, the start-up made Profit magazine’s Hot 50 list. And within four years of launch, Austin was signing the papers to sell her company to Deloitte. 

“That was January 20, 2014. Every entrepreneur remembers the date they sell their company,” she said. 

Austin still works at Deloitte, where she now heads a strategic analytics and modelling practice. Her group is applying data science to various financial and legal problems. Among other things, data science is now being used to analyze law firm business practices to better understand their cost structures and isolate ways they can improve their management and better serve their clients. 

It’s fair to say this is not the career path Austin might have once predicted for herself. She grew up in Toronto where her father – also a Western Law grad – practised law. She set her sights on attending Western Law and perhaps someday working at a Bay St. firm. 

At Western, Austin discovered she had a knack for litigation. She volunteered at the legal clinic, which she described as an extraordinary experience. She harboured thoughts about eventually doing graduate work, perhaps in legal technology or corporate social responsibility, but the practical experience she collected in Western’s legal clinic taught her while she might have some interest in theoretical topics, she needed to be in the thick of action. 

“I had notions about going back to do a masters or a PhD at some stage,” she said. “But in truth, I’m at my best self when working on a case on the practical side.”

Austin graduated from Western Law in 2005 and articled in the Toronto office of Lerners LLP. Once she was called to the bar, she took a job with Davies LLP, where she would spend five years working as a corporate litigator. Along the way, she developed an interest in business and entrepreneurship.

“I was trained as a litigator. I approach everything almost as if I’m digesting a new case. Litigators will learn whole industries in a truncated period of time.” 

Through her work at Davies, Austin witnessed how technology is changing law. For example, eDiscovery showed the profession that computers could rapidly comb through vast collections of corporate records to find crucial evidence. Austin recognized this was just the beginning – why not apply the same methodical approach to things like due diligence document reviews in advance of a merger deal?

“I saw that the world is changing. So, I went to the firm and suggested that maybe we should look at having an outsourcing arm,” she said. “I had no real intention of leaving at the time.” 

Her colleagues at Davies told her the outsourcing business was a good idea – but that it was her idea. If she wanted to give it a shot, it was up to her to take the plunge, leave the firm, and put her ideas to the test. That said, she wasn’t left completely on her own. Some senior partners at Davies would join her advisory board. ATD Legal Services was born. 

Just four years later, Deloitte would come knocking. For its part, Deloitte was keen to expand into the legal space. For her part, Austin understood constant investment in new technology is key to the outsourcing business. Deloitte has the financial capacity to stay ahead of the curve. 

She hasn’t regretted the sale. “I love it. If I didn’t, I guarantee you, I would make a change,” she said. “I actually can’t believe a big firm is paying me to learn about technology.”

So, what’s next? Austin said her focus is on building the business at Deloitte. Apart from learning how to harness data science, she’s also responsible for targeting potential acquisitions and hiring the right people. And as for the future, she’s learned life can be more interesting when you let the chips fall were they may.  

“Maybe five years ago, I would have been very clear about where I would have been by now, but now I have opened myself up to accept some twists and turns. I actually don’t have a specific agenda,” she said.  


Drew Hasselback, LLB’96, is Legal Post Editor of the Financial Post.


This article appeared in the Western Law 2017 Alumni Magazine.
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