Legal’s “New Normal”
It goes without saying that the last 12 months have been tough. In fact, that’s an understatement; the past year has been extremely difficult and distressing for people all around the world. We have been forced to quickly adapt to a new way of living and working – one that has mostly deprived us of the comfort and familiarity we took for granted. Almost overnight, we had a ‘new normal’ thrust upon us, and we had no choice but to embrace it in order to save lives.
There has never been such a rapid and global shift in our way of life. One of the most striking changes has been in the way in which we work. Long commutes and distracting office working are now distant memories. We are now a remote-first workforce. Research has shown that we actually quite like our new working arrangement, with more than half of workers saying they want to continue working from home after the pandemic has eventually eased.
COVID-19 has not only led to people working from home, it has led to them working at different times and in different locations. With schools and support provisions shut, many people struggled with juggling work alongside home-schooling, caring for family members, volunteering or other commitments. This led to an unavoidable rearranging of the working day; starting earlier or working in the evenings and weekends just to keep up. But with this flexibility came an advantage to work to patterns that maximise individuals’ productivity, rather than being forced to work traditional business hours. When not in lockdown, workers are also choosing to work elsewhere. Between lockdowns I’ve had colleagues working remotely from Cornwall, Poland and Dubai. This all means much of the workforce is working on a different time, different place basis.
This new work-from-home revolution will have huge impacts for many industries, but what does it mean for legal, and more specifically, how will technology play a role? Well, I’m no clairvoyant, but here are five legal tech trends I predict we’ll see over the coming months and years as a result of the pandemic.
1) Asynchronous working
Lawyers must embrace asynchronous collaboration and communication tools to facilitate productive working across teams. Whilst many lawyers have quickly embraced synchronous tools to support remote working in lockdown (e.g., video calls and instant messaging), many haven’t yet made the leap to asynchronous platforms for genuine project management. We’re going to see more lawyers experimenting with team collaboration tools like Confluence or Notion, as well as project management tools like Jira, Trello, Asana and Monday. Who knows – we may even see lawyers adopting Agile ceremonies like sprint planning and daily stand-ups!
It’s also likely that this trend will accelerate the creation of next-generation matter management tools – like Matter.Space from BusyLamp – evolving from systems of record to full systems of engagement and collaboration. It won’t just be productivity tools; there will also be a rise in the use of asynchronous learning platforms to make sure remote workers have access to learning and development at a time that best suits their working pattern.
2) Knowledge management, sharing and access
Quick and timely access to legal know-how is critical to a remote team’s mutual knowledge and each individual’s performance. Remote workers can no longer walk across the office to ask a colleague for help and guidance. Calls and instant messaging don’t necessarily help since people are already fighting digital distractions, and they may not be online when guidance is required. Asynchronous collaboration tools help to some extent by enabling know-how to be captured and shared – but we are going to see greater adoption of knowledge management solutions that help team members easily access knowledge whenever, and wherever they are.
This is where we may see AI tools come into their own to help simplify knowledge discovery, connect and structure know-how from different sources, keep knowledge up-to-date, and deliver it in context within workflows. Search functionality (which isn’t always seen as that exciting) will also become one of the most important tools in a remote worker’s arsenal. For this reason, we’ll also see the growth of solutions that help to centralise data to streamline and optimise the search experience. However, whilst search returns results, it doesn’t necessarily deliver specific answers. We’re therefore also likely to see the maturing and wider adoption of chatbots and decision automation tools that help deliver direct answers alongside the underlying sources.
3) Legal gig economy
Flexible resourcing isn’t necessarily new in legal – the likes of LOD (Lawyers on Demand), Axiom, Peerpoint and Vario have been doing it for some time. However, due to large numbers of employees ‘going remote’ during the pandemic, it has allowed organisations to get a better idea of what a remote workforce can achieve.
Surveys have consistently shown that employee productivity is high during the pandemic. Organisations are therefore accelerating their move towards a leaner operating model; bringing in temporary, freelance resources for specific legal tasks or projects as and when needed. This delivers a much more cost-efficient approach and enables businesses to tap into a dispersed pool of talent. Whilst demand will grow, so too will supply as lawyers and paralegals look to capitalise on the flexibility of remote working to build portfolio careers or find a better work-life balance.
I think we are therefore going to see big growth in online flexible resourcing platforms that help connect organisations to an army of remote lawyers and paralegals looking to take advantage of the new-normal. These platforms will either be ‘catch all’ – covering all types of legal resource – or will be niche, focusing on connecting businesses with legal experts in particular fields.
4) Employee monitoring to support legal operations
One benefit of office working is that managers can see what their teams are doing, how they are working and whether team members are struggling. This is obviously more difficult when managing remote teams. Organisations therefore need to find ways to measure the productivity and working patterns of employees and highlight any potential issues.
However, it’s not just about ensuring performance meets the required standards but also ensuring employee wellbeing. “Technostress” has been highlighted as a major problem for many people who are now working remotely and managers need to look for the warning signs. They will also need to ensure they are still identifying training and support needs, and calling out inappropriate behaviour (bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment etc), which can increase in remote environments.
Whilst many lawyers are familiar with recording and accounting for their time, not having to do this is one of the main reasons they enjoy working in-house over private practice! Nevertheless, I expect we will now see more law firms and corporate legal teams invest in digital, online employee-monitoring systems to help maintain productivity, ensure wellbeing, and increase transparency; important metrics for effective legal operations. We may also see existing legal tech platforms add employee-monitoring tools as an option so that employers can track team behaviour, e.g., tracking active/inactive status, monitoring page activity within the tool etc. One way to avoid replicating law firm time recording or overly authoritarian monitoring is to track behaviour for limited periods of time at intervals, rather than an “always-on” approach.
It may be that we see a different kind of monitoring as well; one that is focused less on the output and more on outcomes. As teams make the shift to project management software, it is likely they will begin to track performance against OKRs and KPIs. This is a good way of ensuring performance without being too overbearing. Ultimately, we’ll see organisations and teams adopt a mixture of tools to help them maintain performance and deliver desired outcomes when working remotely.
5) From legal platform to enterprise interoperability
Perhaps the most striking workplace effect of the pandemic is the accelerated and standardised adoption of digital productivity and collaboration tools. Whilst many in-house legal teams and their firms were using video conferencing and instant messaging tools like Zoom, Google Meet and Slack, many were still in the stone age when it came to remote collaboration and communication tools. But that all changed when COVID-19 struck. Microsoft Teams saw its active users skyrocket 160% from 44 million in March 2020 to 115 million in November the same year. Slack and Zoom have seen similar explosions in adoption. These tools have become the common language of remote working.
Legal technology vendors of all sizes will therefore need to re-evaluate their strategy and move away from trying to drive users to their own unique platforms and ecosystems. Instead, they will need to find ways to offer value in the systems where users prefer to work. This means a greater focus on plug-ins, integrations and open APIs. It may even mean the deconstruction of existing products so that functionality can be embedded to extend tools such as Microsoft Teams.
Has Legal Transformation finally arrived?
The obvious theme that ties all of the above together is that technology will be absolutely essential to facilitate workers and their organisations transitioning to the new remote, distributed model (both inside and outside the legal domain). For once, technology is pushing at an open door – employees and employers can’t adopt digital productivity, collaboration and communication tools quick enough.
We are still in the infancy of the remote working tech-revolution so only time will tell whether the above predictions come to pass. Whatever happens, COVID-19 has changed the game for remote working and normal service will not be resumed. Remote-first will be the trend of the 2020s and legal technology vendors should be making this a core component of their product and customer success strategies if they don’t want to be left behind.
Rob MacAdam, VP Product, BusyLamp