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As pandemic speeds up digitization, data-focused law firm INQ plans expansion

(from left) INQ Law managing partners Carole Piovesan and Mary Jane Dykeman, and INQ IQ managing partner Samara Starkman, pictured in Toronto in February 2021.
(From left) INQ Law managing partners Carole Piovesan and Mary Jane Dykeman, and INQ IQ managing partner Samara Starkman, pictured in Toronto in February 2021. Cole Burston/The Logic
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The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a rush of new technology as businesses and governments contend with a stay-at-home economy. In that digital push—and with the private and public sectors increasingly valuing both data and privacy—Toronto-based boutique law firm INQ sees opportunity. 

On Wednesday, INQ is announcing the launch of a new consulting arm to provide strategic advice to companies, non-profits and government agencies, and the addition of a former top provincial privacy regulator as a partner in the law firm. “Businesses have been collecting data and not doing anything with it,” said Samara Starkman, managing partner of the new venture, called INQ IQ. The firms hope to help clients contend with the quickly changing rules that govern their use of that information, and manage the privacy and security of their digital operations.

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Talking Point

Boutique law firm INQ has hired a former top Ontario privacy regulator and is launching a new consulting business as demand for data-focused legal and strategic advice grows thanks to pandemic-induced digitization, legacy industries’ increasing adoption of technology, and the burgeoning domestic innovation economy. 

Carole Piovesan and Mary Jane Dykeman started the legal practice, now called INQ Law, in March 2019. It’s brought on three new partners this year, and on Wednesday will announce the addition of a fourth: David Goodis, who recently retired as an assistant commissioner in the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC). The firm’s clients include domestic tech startups and scale-ups, multinational corporations and research facilities, particularly in the health sector.

From the early stages of the pandemic, companies began to automate some internal tasks and adopt technology to interact with clients, said Chris Howard, chief of research at Gartner and an advisor to INQ. More than four-fifths of Canadian CIOs in the research firm’s 2021 global survey expected increased customer demand for new digital products and services this year, while 57 per cent anticipated more funding within their organizations for digital innovation. But “information governance techniques are relatively weak across the board,” Howard told The Logic, and “the volume of incoming data has exacerbated the problem” even as firms see opportunities to generate more revenue from it.

Piovesan sees “a huge amount of demand for specialty advice” on data. “Legacy industries are definitely moving to reimagine themselves in a digital world,” she said. “But you also have a really thriving and increasingly well-resourced tech sector that’s … very conscious of the use of data.” High-profile data breaches and instances of firms misusing personal information have caused even early-stage firms to focus on privacy compliance.

INQ IQ will focus on privacy, data, cybersecurity and technology. The new consulting firm will offer advice and training; develop information governance and management strategies; and conduct audits as well as privacy impact and threat-risk assessments. It could also serve as clients’ outsourced privacy office. The law firm offers risk-management advice, freedom of information support and corporate governance guidance, as well.

Toronto-based insurer Intact Financial is among the firms that have accelerated digitization during the pandemic, encouraging clients to use its online services to receive documents rather than sending them by mail. It’s part of a longstanding technology push. “The significance and prominence of data in the company every year gets higher,” said Maryann Besharat, Intact vice-president of legal and compliance, citing the use of app-based sensing and telematics to adjust drivers’ insurance fees. 

Intact has a large legal department, and most of its privacy and data governance work is done in-house. Law firms’ “ability to [see] a common thread amongst many industries would be invaluable,” said Besharat. But “what they might be lacking … is the deep dive into the nuances [of] every different industry,” since insurance differs significantly from, say, pharmaceuticals or even banking.

Large Canadian law firms have their own well-staffed privacy and data practices, while the major consulting firms have spun out AI- and analytics-focused divisions. But Piovesan believes INQ’s focus gives it an edge: “We don’t dabble.” A 2016 survey by the International Association of Privacy Professionals found that 22 per cent of corporate respondents who employed outside counsel on privacy and data security used a specialist firm.  

INQ’s staff have experience in-house at companies and in the public sector, as well as in private practice and government. Starkman worked for provincial agency Cancer Care Ontario, while Piovesan is co-chair of the federal advisory council for the COVID-19 exposure-notification app and previously spent nearly nine years at McCarthy Tétrault. 

New recruit Goodis, meanwhile, has three decades at the IPC, focusing on Ontario’s public-sector privacy law. “That’s a specific area of expertise that impacts hundreds of public organizations, municipalities [and] police services,” said Piovesan. In the midst of a data breach, “it’s really valuable to have that regulator’s perspective.” 

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Canadian lawmakers are in the midst of major changes to privacy and personal information rules. The federal government’s Bill C-11 would give consumers new rights to transfer and remove their information, and create new flexibility for businesses’ use of data. Quebec’s legislature is considering a private-sector privacy law, while Ontario held consultations on its statutes last year. That’s another opportunity for INQ. “There’s so much fluidity in the regulatory landscape when it comes to data collection and use,” said Piovesan. “Practical advice—sometimes legal, sometimes strategic, sometimes compliance—is really important now.”