The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing changes in the way the world (including the world of business) works to such a degree that the effects are sure to extend far beyond the current situation.
Aside from potentially devastating entire industries such as travel, restaurants, and entertainment, the impact of today’s crisis will truly become a watershed event — to be measured in before-COVID and after-COVID nomenclature — that will alter almost every economy, business, and market in the world, including the legal industry.
In the legal world, there are currently a variety of responses in play.
The Supreme Court postponed oral arguments for the first time since 1918, and many courts are also cancelling hearings and non-case related meetings. Some district courts, criminal courts, and legal services organizations have held out closing or are going fully remote, but it may only be a matter of time before access to justice will come to mean online access – a change that will likely remain in some forms post-pandemic.
Meanwhile, the American Bar Association (ABA), which had communicated its guidelines on Online Legal Education in February, saw more than 150 law schools move en masse to online learning after canceling classes because of the outbreak. Indeed, legal education — already under tremendous pressure to modernize in the digital age — may now simply have no choice.
What Law Firms Have Done
Law firms — like their counterparts in corporate law departments and legal tech companies — are implementing travel bans and other restrictions as a recent ILTA survey showed.
In addition to allowing or requiring attorneys and support staff to work from home — and fully closing offices in cities that have mandated it — many law firms are approaching the needs of corporate clients proactively. Indeed, the biggest brands in BigLaw have created cross-disciplinary taskforces and released checklists and guidance for their clients, often making this material available for free on their websites and over social media. And small and midsized law firms have made similar offerings, making information available proactively and quickly, especially for employers and healthcare clients.
Social distancing is in effect at many firms, while others are rotating teams of lawyers in and out each day. This platooning strategy allows the firm to maintain a presence in its offices while minimizing the chances for its attorneys to encounter the virus. Some large and midsized firms have opted for these approaches, which may be giving firms more time to possibly prepare to accelerate its processes for allowing all its attorneys to be fully remote, eventually.
Of course, this approach is not without risks in a legal environment that was undergoing significant change even before COVID-19 hit. For example, the focus on allowing lawyers to avoid the office actually represents a struggle for many law firm partners who value face-time in the office as part of a firm’s culture. However, placed on the scale with concerns over COVID-19 on the other side, on balance, the answer is obvious. Whether it’s the COVID-19 pandemic or some other external pressure forcing the legal industry’s hand, it’s clearly the time to let go of static, out-moded notions of work and instead fully embrace the efficiencies of remote technologies.
Technology Can Help, But…
Remote access has grown at a fast clip recently, with a 44% increase just over the last five years, according to a special analysis done by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics. Since 2005, in fact, there has been a 159% boost in employees working outside of the traditional office setting, the analysis showed.
To aid that mass migration, we now may be entering the age of the platform and app. Applications like Citrix and VMware virtual environments, virtual private networks (VPNs), client collaboration platforms such as HighQ, and presentation tools like Webex, GoToMeeting, Zoom, and Skype, have made it simple, inviting, and profitable to work from any remote location with a decent network connection.
This technology, which offers scalable collaboration and presentation, is designed for “anywhere access” and is well-equipped to handle the increased traffic as legal professionals conduct internal and external meetings, litigation teams work in concert to craft their arguments and write and submit briefs, and firm managers access and analyze their teams’ workflow.
Like the concept of remote lawyering, however, this available technology comes with risks, too. For example, those law firms that use VPNs sometimes struggle with network speed, depending on connection and workload; and in fact, many networks may be ill-equipped to handle nearly all their employees working remotely. Beyond considering system capacities, however, corporate IT departments have an even bigger worry — cybersecurity.
Now, because COVID-19 is forcing more employees to self-quarantine and work from home, the information security risks posed by remote access could potentially create new challenges for network engineers.
The Approach to Face Time Must Change
Ben Levi, co-founder & COO of InCloudCounsel, recently wrote how the rise of remote lawyering and flex-work ability was increasingly becoming the reality throughout the legal industry even before the outbreak. That’s not only good for law firms wanting to increase efficiency and save on overhead costs, but it’s also reflective of lawyers wanting more fulfilling lives and better well-being.
If the virus continues to disrupt life for several months, as many experts expect it to, law firms will have to rethink everything, from industry events to summer associate programs to their long-held traditions and ways of doing business.
For the actual practice of law, however, the technology is there to let business go on without too much disruption, if law firms will use it, and their trusted tech pros take the necessary steps to keep their data secure.
By accelerating a trend that was already well underway, we may emerge from the current crisis with a dramatically transformed workplace that permanently alters how legal work is performed and delivered.