The World Turned Upside Down: How the Pandemic Has Permanently Transformed the Legal Industry

When our firm updated its disaster recovery plan several years ago, global pandemics were just above locust plagues on what we perceived as realistic threats.  Yet here we are in the throes of the Corona virus– the world turned upside down.  Although the global health crisis is nothing short of terrible, the practice of law and the delivery of legal services have in many ways permanently changed for the better on account of the pandemic.  When the Corona virus eventually subsides, the benefits to law firms and legal consumers will remain.

Most of the efficiencies that have come with law firms having to operate fully remotely have been bandied about in one way or another for years.  Before the pandemic, there were plenty of excellent legal service providers with little or no brick and mortar presence, but law firms are (or at least were) notoriously slow to adopt new systems and technology, so the vast majority still clung to their physical space and the “conventional” way to practice law, which was replete with inefficiencies.  Corona has forced law firms to embrace technology and the efficiencies it affords in order to survive.

Virtual Meetings

Video conferences were previously something most lawyers avoided if at all possible.  They were awkward, impersonal, clunky, and often unproductive.  The conventional wisdom was that if a lawyer needed to meet with a client, they would do so in person, both as a matter of professional courtesy, and because the attorney-client relationship is so personal that only a face-to-face meeting would do.  The same could be said for interactions with judges, mediators, deponents, and witnesses– we simply could not be as effective if we were not there in person.  The ubiquity and ease of use of Teams, Zoom, WebEx, Google Meet, and similar video meeting applications during the pandemic have called conventional wisdom into question.

People are accustomed to communicating by video (how often do you FaceTime with friends and family?) and communicating with their lawyer is no different. Many lawyers have been pleasantly surprised that video meetings can be every bit as personal and productive as in-person meetings.  In many cases, talking with a client by video while you are both in your homes is actually more personal than doing so in a sterile conference room in your office.  Because no travel is involved, video meetings are infinitely easier to schedule than in-person meetings.  Because they are not spending time in cars, airports, and airplanes, lawyers are more available to have video meetings with their clients.  In addition, legal consumers have been using video meetings for years with their own employees and teams.  They expect to hold virtual meetings with service providers.  Far from being off-putting, video meetings are a way for their lawyer to remain in step with the way their clients do business.

Working Remotely

Before the Corona virus, an unscientific summary of how lawyers viewed working remotely by generation might look like this:

Millennials–  Perfectly comfortable working remotely and expect to be able to do so as much as they would like.  When it is necessary to come into the physical office, swing-space (“hoteling”) is the expectation.

Baby Boomers–  Practicing law is collaborative and personal and does not lend itself to working remotely. See you at the office!

Gen X–  Sure we would like to work remotely more often, but we are not about to rock the Boomers’ boat. Not to mention, we never got to work remotely when we were associates.

These notions almost seem quaint now.  Nearly every lawyer has had to adjust to working from home in some form or fashion.  And while there are certainly things, like summer associate programs, that better lend themselves to the in-office setting, the forced experiment of practicing law remotely has been successful overall.

While the evidence is admittedly anecdotal, lawyers of all ages have been pleasantly surprised by their productivity, ability to provide exceptional client service, and quality of work life while working remotely.  Transactional costs are removed, the daily commute in particular, so lawyers are “finding time” in their day.  While the dynamic of virtual collegiality has taken some time to get used to, using video chat or IM to socialize, mentor, and manage has become second-nature to us.  We are more accessible to our colleagues and clients because we are not doing things like commuting to the office or flying to in-person meetings.

It is fair to assume that lawyers with childcare challenges on account of the pandemic would strenuously disagree that the “forced experiment” of practicing law remotely has been a success.  However, when the country and world are finally able to get a handle on the virus, and daycares and schools reopen, these attorneys will also have the opportunity to benefit from the improved efficiency of teleworking.  To be clear, I do not envision a post-pandemic legal landscape where all or most law firms are fully remote.  In-person meetings are highly effective for endeavors like mentoring younger attorneys or certain collaborative projects. The value to morale of in-person, in-office camaraderie is difficult to overstate.  However, we should expect that a much larger percentage of lawyers will regularly work remotely, and legal consumers will be the beneficiaries of this shift.

Clients will receive better efficiency and better service.  Law firms will be able to do things more cost-effectively because they will have lower overhead.  Law firms are going to need less physical space with more lawyers working away from the office.  Firms will similarly right-size their administrative staff now that lawyers have, by necessity, become more comfortable with technology.  Most importantly, legal consumers will no longer have a technophobe lawyer who insists on inefficient communication methods simply because that is how lawyers have always communicated.  Not long ago, their lawyer was intimidated by technology, but she has evolved as a result of the pandemic.  Now their lawyer is more accessible, more efficient, and more engaged.

Many things are sure to change in our world when this horrific virus eventually subsides.  And a pandemic has to be the worst possible reason for any industry to have to evolve.  Nevertheless, the changes that the legal industry has embraced out of necessity are changes that will have long-term positive impacts on the practice of law and delivery of legal services.  Whatever normal looks like for the world once Corona is tamed, legal consumers should expect a new, and better “normal” with their lawyer and law firm.