Like their larger competitors, midsize law firms are facing the formidable task of managing a legal workforce that has shifted almost completely to remote working. Now, even as some offices begin to plan how to bring lawyers and staff back into the office, the way legal work will get done in the future may have permanently changed.
To help navigate this new terrain, Thomson Reuters hosted its second of three roundtables for midsize law firms to lay out best practices for managing the COVID-19 pandemic. The attorneys attending this roundtable discussed changes in legal workflows that have occurred during shelter-in-place orders and how much (or little) working from home has changed the business and practice of law. (The first Thomson Reuters attorney roundtable featured a panel of attorneys discussing how midsize law firms can continue to demonstrate their value to clients.)
Preparation relieves pressure
In many ways, technical enhancements that modernize work processes for lawyers have made the experience of transitioning to remote work relatively painless. Roundtable panelist Travis Agustin, a senior associate with Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel in Honolulu, was in the middle of a litigation case when his office shut down. While his practice is still largely dependent on physical files, however, Agustin and his firm were nonetheless prepared. Seeing the virus’s impact on Seattle during the pandemic’s onset, Agustin and others at the firm planned ahead and brought casefiles home to be able to continue working.
Another panelist, Joe Sano, a partner at Prince Lobel Tye in Boston, says he was similarly prepared. Because his firm was impacted by the calamitous terrorist attack during the Boston Marathon seven years ago, the firm knew the importance of having a preparedness plan in place. As such, the firm, its lawyers, and staff were ready to jump into action and begin working remotely with minimal disruption. From accessing firm documents remotely through a DMS, and amassing discovery production via SaaS applications, to regularly communicating with colleagues on Zoom video calls, Sano says he has the necessary resources to keep his practice running.
In fact, some aspects of work may have even improved with the mass migration to remote work. The ability to conference regularly and routinely has fostered better communication, says panelist Mark Roderick, a partner at Lex Nova Law in Cherry Hill, N.J. “There was previously a tendency to assume certain conversations would take care of themselves and that often didn’t happen,” explains Roderick, adding that by having to plan these conversations, he feels that everyone at the firm is now even more effective in communicating.
While all of the participating attorneys had the ability to work remotely for years, they acknowledged there are still paper processes — like collecting physical mail or having clients pay by paper check — that need to be managed. Sano’s firm, for example, has a third-party come to the office to collect the physical mail in a safe manner and has also changed the firm’s intake procedures in certain instances to adapt the formerly paper-heavy process to the new digital reality.
Is cloud computing the answer?
Notably, the roundtable participants vary in their approaches to the cloud. Agustin notes that Goodsill had made major upgrades in preparation for a large-scale cloud migration, but the pandemic arrived before the firm was able to execute its plan.
Roderick echoes a reliance on cloud solutions for research, document management, time-keeping, and billing. “We don’t have servers,” says Roderick. “We don’t want to own any servers, the performance is fantastic — we don’t crash ever, we are always up to date.”
That reliance on the cloud made the transition from working in an office to working remotely completely transparent, Roderick explains, adding that even the firm’s phones are all internet-based. “I could bring my phone home if I wanted to, plug in to the internet port on my computer and it would ring the same way,” he says. “When everything is in the cloud, the physical geography is irrelevant, and we are very happy to have made that move.”
Sano and his firm approach the cloud differently, with concerns about efficiency and relying on third-parties for security functions. They are currently satisfied accessing their desktops remotely, Sano says, and he does not see the firm moving to the cloud until their concerns about latency are quelled.
A practice transformed
Law firms aren’t the only ones in the legal world moving to cloud and remote technologies to continue operations. Beyond the major changes in his practice, Agustin says that many courts have moved to e-filing, and clients in some jurisdictions now have the ability to revise wills and estate documents with the benefit of a virtual notary.
Roderick, pointing to challenges with paper checks and working with online ACH payments, believes accepting payments is one of his biggest challenges in working from home. He sees an opportunity to enhance payment software by adding the ability to accept ACH payments in addition to clients’ credit cards. Right now, Roderick is required to send clients separate links in accommodating this payment type. Further, while finding legal research solutions indispensable, he envisions future iterations driven less by the thinking of software engineers and more by the thinking of attorneys.
Each of the attorneys at the roundtable could identify specific advantages to remote working that positively changed their workflow. Agustin admits his day is more streamlined working from home, without the strain of a commute or the administrative tasks inherent to working in an office. Although he had largely relied on physical files in the office, the change in mindset of reviewing files on his computer is a habit Agustin says he thinks may carry over into his post-pandemic workday.
Roderick praises the value of Zoom meetings, a capability he knew was available, but admits he did not pay much attention to it previously. With the flexibility and power to connect with a large number of people in a myriad of circumstances, Roderick says he appreciates its efficiency now more than ever.
For his part, Sano predicts that a transformation in legal industry is coming, specifically in how law firms maintain their physical brick-and-mortar footprints. He thinks firms may start considering office spaces that offer “hotel concierge service-type offices with smaller onsite support staffs.” As clients observe this transformation and begin to trust that law firms can conduct their business remotely, Sano expects this realization will impact the way attorneys work going forward… as well as billing rates over time.
One thing is clear, the pandemic is highlighting an already existing movement, in all aspects, of how law firms work. Firms positioning themselves to be forward-thinking are already making use of the new and innovative tools that are streamlining the practice of law. Those firms will survive and thrive; not only during shelter-in-place orders, but long after we have returned to some degree of workplace normalcy.
The blog post was co-authored by Peter Colin, Gail Murphy, and Eric Seader of Thomson Reuters.