Two years ago, the global Corona pandemic emerged. We all experienced different waves, had to be flexible and change our way of working as we knew it previously. Vaccination was already offered to all European citizens – in the meantime, people are vaccinated for the third time. The current phase of the pandemic could be the new reality. At this point we want to sum up – what have law firms and their clients learned as a result of COVID-19 and what changes to their systems, working practices and organisational structure have they made and are retaining post-pandemic?
Rather than dwelling on the immediate past we will focus on the positive outcomes for the future. We can also say that at this stage of the pandemic much of what was done is still relevant – it’s not over yet – with new variants and the possible results of lockdown easings and the lack of 100% vaccine coverage – the legal profession will need to continuously deal with challenges and retain a positive perspective. Nobody planned for Covid-19, and nobody knows what is coming next but there will be something! If Covid-19 can be likened to other “catastrophic” events, such as flood, fire, or other external event, many law firms and their clients had business continuity and resilience plans in place; some parts of which allowed them to respond quickly and positively. Others, however, did not and had to face major problems.
What have we learned?
So, what have law firms and clients learned; what was done because of Covid-19 and what will the longer term “business as usual” look like? We have spoken to many Legal Operations Managers and GC in corporate legal departments, and we also have a good ongoing dialogue with many law firms and have gained a good insight into what they did in the immediate lockdown scenario and what they are doing in the (hopefully) post-pandemic world.
- Remote Working: As we know clients and their law firms had to immediately go into lockdown near the start of the pandemic, and institute remote working for almost all their staff. One client organisation had to set up remote working for 75,000 people and did it successfully. Many organisations, not just in the legal world are re-thinking their longer-term office requirements and whether their current capacity will be needed in the future. Currently no-one seems to be saying that the traditional office will disappear, but all our contacts believe that there will be a major re-evaluation of the accepted norm to provide a desk for every individual.
- Greater need for technology: Lockdown also required a very quick move to technology that supported home/remote working – and at a scale never envisaged. Some law firms and in-house departments had already implemented a degree of technology and support for people to work from home (WFH) but the pandemic meant that this had to be done very quickly with almost no notice. Immediately, Zoom, Teams, Skype or whatever, became required for any meeting and for work colleagues to maintain visual contact with their peers. Tools to enable collaboration and communication became vital and this has led to a huge take-up of document sharing applications, electronic document signing and instant messaging systems. Along with this, those responsible for IT, must ensure that data and access security is not compromised! Other applications within legal departments have been deployed for managing work and this includes, workflow and case management, full contracts access and administration, eDiscovery, IP systems/brand protection, e-billing/spend management, law firm instructing (including RfPs) and matter progress tracking.
- Flexible business priorities: For clients there was an immediate re-evaluation of their business priorities, and what seemed like a sensible plan at the beginning of 2020 was suddenly thrown into confusion. For example, one client realised that their customer call centres could not continue as they were and had to be home-based with all the supporting technology that went with that. Some organisations, such as the airlines, faced an immediate financial crisis as thousands of flights were cancelled and the business went into survival mode. All clients have said that as a priority they dropped all non-core tasks/processes and focussed on what the business needed to survive.
- Agile workflows with internal clients: Certainly, one lesson learned from the pandemic has left many corporate legal departments realising that they must be more agile in how they approach working for their internal “clients”. One GC has said that the in-house lawyer must be more self-critical and demonstrate how they add value to the business. This will involve being more flexible, be prepared to adopt new roles as required and demonstrate how the legal team can influence the rest of the organisation. Another GC said that the in-house team must focus on taking a more “risk management” approach and that mitigating risk for the business will be even more critical. Also, that communicating back to the business on what they are doing is vital as is showing how their work has a positive ROI (return on investment).
- Higher value requirement from law firms: There is an expectation from several clients we have spoken to that they really want their external law firms to be more proactive and expressed a disappointment that they were not anticipating their client’s needs. One client went as far as saying that just sending a newsletter in response to the pandemic was not enough and he expected more engagement from his outside law firms. Some clients were looking for much more from their firms – not only legal advice but clear added value, a more cost driven approach and to come up with ideas to challenge the status quo. They also expect any relationship meeting to more meaningful, with better cost tracking and post matter reviews being essential. At panel review time, these clients will be looking for a positive response from prospective external law firms.
- Greater need for knowledge exchange: Some law firms have already implemented knowledge management systems but now all organisations realise that there must be more formal ways for sharing of information both within the law firm and potentially with the clients as well. Certainly, within law firms, the introduction of a high degree of remote working means there is little or no opportunity for easily sharing information or even asking the quick question that a chat around the water cooler or walk down the corridor to speak to a colleague can achieve – i.e., informal knowledge sharing. Now this knowledge sharing must be more formal – calling for the development of knowledge management or “legal know-how” systems – and this means not just using the firm’s document management system but building data stores of indexed information, that is easy to find, and reflects the law firm’s collective experience.
- New management methods for legal staff: More than one in-house counsel believes that there will have to be a new approach to how legal work is managed and staffed in the future. For example, it may be that more generalist work is done in-house leaving the specialist work to be done externally. Rather than taking each matter and deciding whether it will be worked on internally or externally, clients can go even further, and use e-billing technology to break a matter into phases, with some phases done internally, others done externally.
- Changed working models: While much legal work can be done by remote working and good technology and communication systems in place – some work done by the legal department and the law firm is less easy to do remotely, for example, HR or disciplinary issues. It is difficult to have certain conversations over a video link and they really need to be done face to face. We believe that law firms and clients will have to find a solution to this particular problem. On the other hand, working from home can have other benefits such as allowing for more flexible working hours. Some individuals may find it easier to work un-social hours – maybe early morning or in the evening and this can be useful if working with non-Europe based colleagues, for example, to cover the working time in (say) the USA or Asia.
- Mental and physical health of employees: One key feature that has come to the fore during the pandemic is that of health and well-being – both mental and physical – not just in the workplace but also in the home and wider society. Many organisations were quick to try and assist staff working in a new environment in various ways, for example, by giving grants for purchasing specialist chairs and equipment. Certainly, if staff are continuing to work from home in the future, even if it is for only one or two days a week, then this kind of support will have to be maintained. Although many organisations were already proactive in this area, more companies are now providing access to CBT and other stress management services and are more willing to discuss these issues openly and without stigma. However, there are now new debates about the vaccination status of staff returning to the office, with some organisations saying that un-vaccinated staff may not be allowed to return. This issue will no doubt run on over the coming months.
- Dealing with work backlogs: Obviously those law firms involved in the justice system were immediately impacted from the start of the pandemic – for example in the UK, jury trials were suspended at the start of the first lockdown. Some other types of cases did continue as video conferencing and other technology was introduced into the courts. Even though jury trials have been resumed, with strong COVID-19 precautions in place, there is a huge backlog of cases in all the courts, caused by the requirements of remote working and other restrictions placed on all parties involved.
So, what has living and working through the pandemic in the past two years taught us? Certainly, lessons have been learned and actions taken that cannot be reversed. The pre-pandemic trend for some people to work from home became the “normal” way to work for those who could. No doubt there will be a return to the office, but many people believe that we will see a more hybrid way of working with WFH (at least on a part-time basis) becoming accepted. However, we believe that working from home will not be the universal standard as organisations have realised that a degree of office-based working is still needed – especially for the less experienced staff who require more personal mentoring and the support of colleagues in the real rather than the virtual world.
Developments in the use of collaboration and communications technology were also accelerated and again we will see these applications become more mainstream, both in our work and personal lives.
Finally, all organisations working in the legal profession know that changes are inevitable, and the pandemic has highlighted the need for a review and transformation of organisational structures, new ways of working, a re-prioritisation of projects and increasing flexibility and agility in the approach to delivering successful outcomes.
SPECIAL THANKS TO