Necessity is the mother of invention, and many law firms would agree that 2020 has been a real mother of a year.
COVID-19 has sparked an unprecedented surge of innovation within the legal profession. In some cases, the future has simply arrived way ahead of schedule, as a leisurely evolution toward things like paperless offices and cloud-based computing got kicked into overdrive because of social distancing requirements.
But firms have also embraced innovations that would have been utterly unthinkable just six months ago. And as always happens after a crisis, some of the changes that firms were forced to adopt as makeshift measures are proving to be so useful that will very likely stick around even after the pandemic has abated.
As people everywhere yearn to imagine a post-pandemic world, it’s clear that COVID-19 is reshaping the legal profession permanently, and in many cases, changing it for the better.
Can’t start a fire without a spark
Some changes were already just ever-so-slightly off in the future—and had seemed like they forever would be, like the long-promised paperless offices. But now as some lawyers are starting to return to their desks, the reams of paper noticeably aren’t, and never will. In some cases, even lawyers’ handwritten notes are being digitized and added to newly-created electronic files.
“The pandemic and the resulting quarantine really springboarded us into this era of paperless law practice. From my perspective, that’s been a real positive thing for our law firm,” said Ryan Bliss, a workers’ compensation attorney with The Law Offices of James Scott Farrin in Durham, North Carolina. “We have quick access to all of the files we need to help us at a moment’s notice, and we have access to that from anywhere. We don’t have to rely on a paper file. For most of us, our eyes have now been opened to how much more efficient we can be in a paperless environment.”
Creating electronic files enables attorneys to work more efficiently from home, another trend that was already gaining strength before the pandemic started and won’t go into reverse once the crisis ends. Working from home permitted social distancing, but it also lets employees stay home if they or their child are sick, or a whole office is shut down because of a hurricane. It’s also easier now because many attorneys have not only gotten the hang of it, but also made long-term investments in making their homes more appealing places to work from.
Matt Leerberg, managing partner at Fox Rothschild’s Raleigh, North Carolina, office, said the crisis has also accelerated a rethinking about how non-lawyer staff and support staff work efficiently. At his firm, job descriptions had to be re-envisioned once offices were emptied of everyone except a skeleton crew of essential staff that had to handle any work that needed to be done on site. Many comparatively straightforward tasks that had previously been done by legal assistants were transferred to the firm’s service center.
“It turns out that that makes so much more sense than having legal assistants, who are fairly highly trained, doing those sorts of tasks,” Leerberg said. “That’s freed up our legal assistants to do more complex work. A legal assistant that might have been tied up doing a lot of mail processing before is freed up to prepare and draft filings and do the more paralegal-type work that they have the expertise to do. That change is not going away. That’s been coming for a while, but this has accelerated it.”
Never let a crisis go to waste
Leerberg said he was most excited, however, about the changes that have taken place that wouldn’t even have been contemplated six months ago.
In particular, many courts have permitted judges to conduct hearings remotely for the first time ever. While this has been a necessity because of social distancing, it’s also been a boon to efficiency since the hassle of corralling all of the lawyers involved in a case into one courtroom imposes enormous costs on clients and lawyers alike. Remote hearings have not only lowered those costs, they’ve even made it possible to schedule some brief hearings that are helpful in moving a case forward but wouldn’t have justified the expense of an in-person hearing.
“It’s my hope that this is a permanent change,” Leerberg said. “It’s good for the client, good for the lawyer to be able to spend more time with their family, and good for the cases because they’re able to move forward more efficiently. The judges really seem to like it, too. I hope it stays that way indefinitely.”
Bliss said that some judges and administrative support staff are starting to see the benefits of holding some hearings online. In one hearing, Bliss was able to call a witness who lives far away and very likely wouldn’t have been able to make it to an in-person hearing. Because of the pandemic, however, she was able to appear and be cross-examined by attorneys using a video chat application.
The pandemic may prompt other useful innovations within the court systems as well. In 2009, the Judicial Branch launched a pilot program that was supposed to usher in an electronic filing system. The financial crisis—another good example of how temporary crises can cause permanent changes—prompted budget cuts that put e-filing in a deep freeze, where it has remained ever since.
Eleanor Panetti, a family law attorney in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said her office staff was part of that pilot project. She said that the sudden shift away from paper files in law offices will hopefully reawaken the urgency to institute e-filing. E-filing has been used in the state’s Business Court, and mandatory in the federal courts, for years, and bringing it to the local courts has always remained the long-term ambition.
“I am so looking forward to the day when we have that,” Panetti said. “For average lawyers and law firms, that would just be huge not having to physically send a human being to a courthouse.”
The Jetsons meet the Flintstones
Videoconferencing has been the stuff of sci-fi dreams since at least the days of The Jetsons, but its uptake had been very slow in the real world, and all of the anxiety and awkwardness induced by Zoom calls at the beginning of the pandemic helps illustrate why. But now that they’re old hat, video calls seem likely to become a permanent feature of law practice.
That will save time and money by eliminating a lot of in-person meetings. But Leerberg said that increased comfort with videoconferencing has shifted norms in another way: in some cases video calls are taking the place of what would have been phone calls, and actually improving the quality of conversations.
“There’s no substitute for being able to look someone in the eye when you’re speaking to them. In some ways, I actually feel more connected to my clients and my colleagues in other offices now,” Leerberg said. “You can see people in their home environment. It’s incredibly humanizing to see each person in their home environment.”
Zoom will never eliminate the value of in-person communication or make offices obsolete, but law firms will likely find that they need less office space per attorney than they used to as attorneys spend more time working from home, and find that office space is less expensive in a post-pandemic world. Similarly, COVID-19 is unlikely to completely kill off conferences or in-person CLE, but the market for them is likely to become significantly smaller as more professional and business development moves online to save time and travel expenses.
COVID-19 has imposed so much hardship on so many people that it can almost feel churlish to think that there might be any silver linings to it, but it’s forced firms to make investments that will significantly increase their post-pandemic efficiency. Many attorneys will likely find themselves traveling less often for work even after travel restrictions are lifted, and able to work from home more easily when they need to—changes that should make the practice of law significantly more pleasant in the long run.
Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan