Amid the ongoing pandemic crisis, it is even more crucial for lawyers at midsize law firms to seek ways to strengthen their client relationships, even if they’re working remotely and facing a number of challenges in the current environment.
To help with this, Thomson Reuters held an attorney roundtable, Strategies for Strengthening Client Relationships During the COVID-19 Crisis, that featured a panel of attorneys that offered keen insights into how midsize law firms can continue to demonstrate their value to their clients.
Responding to client needs
The panel discussed in depth how the scope of client conversation — no surprise — has changed. Panelists Michael Cook, a partner at Liles Parker, and Kathryn Cole, a partner at Farrell Fritz, said they have observed clients shifting gears and focusing on immediate needs that have become a priority because of the pandemic and economic crisis that has ensued.
While this has caused growth in practice areas like estate planning and bankruptcy, as well as small business clients looking for assistance securing government loans, clients have adjusted their priorities and what they want from their law firms. Because of this, law firms should take this time to think creatively on what value they can bring to clients and how they can stay relevant in legal services offerings, Cole said, adding that firms can offer clients benefits such as virtually hosting roundtables or partnering in the community through events with other firms, clients, and in-house counsel. For example, Farrell Fritz has expanded beyond basic marketing to provide clients access to webinars, blogs, and other written resources on the many changes COVID-19 has caused in court operations and other relevant topics, Cole explained.
The panel admitted it is difficult to hedge the pandemic’s impact on your attorneys’ own practices, but panelist Ronald Levine, general counsel and risk manager at Herrick Feinstein, said he’s thinking about client issues proactively by observing the court dockets. “By watching what claims leading law firms are filing, you can anticipate… and counsel your clients accordingly,” Levine said.
Cook agreed, adding that he expects clients will be adversely affected by changes in healthcare policy and plans on informing clients proactively on these issues. Attorneys and firms need to game-plan their approach with clients but be nimble enough to adjust and adapt as clients’ needs change, he explained.
Minimizing disruption with technology
Despite shelter-in-place orders keeping much of the country indoors, technology has helped minimize the disruption in client services. “If we were still chained to libraries… this would be a very different situation for us lawyers,” noted panelist Mark Roderick, a partner at Lex Nova Law. Law firms began to adapt to technology-enhanced work processes after the Great Recession of 2008, and this crisis will continue pushing the legal industry in that direction, Roderick said, adding that while this may favor investing in technology over renting office space, law firms will adjust their priorities. “The crisis is going to make all [lawyers] more efficient.”
With these technologies comes the need for training on how to use them — even how to talk on Zoom video calls, Levin noted, adding that there are skills involved in using these tools, and the most successful lawyers should be pretty adept at these devices.
Of course, hurdles and challenges remain with remote practice, said Cole, adding that, for example, the use of video conferencing tools in New York courts have been a challenge for litigation practitioners.
Levine agreed, noting there are additional challenges in virtual litigation and professional liability issues from remote work. Referencing the post-Recession uptick in malpractice cases in 2008, Levine suggested that law firms should think through their oversight measures. From the unknowns involved in a deponent answering questions from their kitchen through a webcam, to intake and conflicts, Levine said he encourages lawyers to be careful and diligent to avoid liability themselves in this abnormal work environment.
Indeed, one solution to this concern would be for firms to implement document repositories that are remotely accessible, the panel suggested. Cook said he also encourages firms not to lapse on regular web sessions and Zoom meetings for practice groups and teams.
The panel also noted, however, that midsize law firms are better positioned for this type of collaboration and technological agility than are larger firms with legacy technology systems and legacy cost centers, the roundtable agreed.
Clients will still need lawyers
Plans aside, the future is certainly unpredictable. Many firms and their attorneys don’t know yet how significantly the economic downturn will impact them. Even with the market’s current challenges, however, all members of the roundtable expressed optimism for the future. Lawyers should “keep our minds open, remember that we’ve seen things before,” Cook said.
Further, technology is empowering lawyers to continue representing clients through these tough times and an increased competence with these tools will ultimately make lawyers more efficient, Cole said.
Roderick emphasized the resilience of entrepreneur clients. “As entrepreneurs figure out how to deal with the new reality — whether our existing clients or new clients — they are going to need good legal help,” he said. “And there will be jobs for lawyers to do.”