Written by Doug O’Neill
Does one successful startup lead to another? That’s definitely the case for Ben Alarie and his co-founders at Blue J Legal, the Toronto start-up which experienced success with the 2015 launch of Tax Foresight, a system that uses machine learning algorithms to predict the likely outcomes of tax law cases. Now they’ve applied that same winning formula to employment law.
Alarie, who’s CEO of Blue J Legal as well as the Osler Chair in Business Law at the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, says the team didn’t originally plan to developed a version of their AI-driven tax system for employment law. It was largely prompted by feedback and requests from clients: “We’d be making presentations to lawyers at major Toronto law firms about employee classification from a tax law perspective, and invariably someone would ask if we had time to make the same presentation to their labour and employment law group.” Alarie, along with his co-founders Albert Yoon and Anthony Niblett, who are also law professors, would always emphasize to the client that the algorithms were based on tax case law, not employment law. “But our clients were still keen,” says the law professor-cum-entrepreneur.
“It was a fairly organic progression after that,” says Alarie. In 2017 Blue J Legal launched Employment Foresight. “It’s been a game-changer for our clients because it takes into account all of the important factors that courts consider in employment law cases, and then makes a prediction based on how those factors have interacted in court in the past,”
How it works: “Imagine a company is considering the ramifications of terminating an employee,” says Alarie. “The company’s HR team and legal counsel, if there is one, want to know (fairly quickly) the likely outcome if that employee were to file for wrongful dismissal. Employment Foresight is fairly straightforward: the system asks all of the right questions pertaining to the situation, and has the ability to address a full scope of issues such as reasonable notice, constructive dismissal, etc., and makes predictions based on similar existing cases.”
The benefits to the client include a reduced risk of litigation, the ability to confidently determine severance packages, and a reduction in the time spent negotiating.
The entire start-up experience has been one of constant learning for Alarie. He and members of his team were part of The Creative Destruction Lab at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto (“where I learned a lot about scaling up a start-up”) and the the Next Founders Program (“which was like a mini MBA program that helped me better understand the financial issues unique to entrepreneurial ventures”). Blue J Legal is now part of One Eleven in Toronto, a scale-up innovation hub for promising high-growth start-ups. “All of these experiences,” says Alarie, “have helped me learn everything including how to manage cash flow as an entrepreneur, how to assess a new software, how to source seed money… The learning is endless.”
This eagerness to learn is a trait that Alarie looks for when recruiting new team members to Blue J Legal, which has doubled its staff to 21 in the past year: “We request all of our applicants to complete what’s called a Strengths Finder Assessment, which identifies an individual’s top five strengths out of a possible 34. An absurdly high percentage of our team have identified learning as one of their top strengths,” says Alarie. “And that works perfectly for us because start-ups are learning organizations. At Blue J Legal, we look for learners, people who are curious, who are nimble, who are always trying to figure things out.” Ideal traits, of course, for any successful start-up.
Photo Credit: Doug O’Neill