March 2020 will undoubtedly be a time many remember as marking the beginning of an (as yet undetermined) period of lockdown. While some rushed to supermarkets to stockpile toilet paper and pasta, more of us scrambled to adapt to working from home and the new pressures this would put on our work lives.
As the dust settles and we begin to get used to the new normal, we look at some of the key takeaways from the coronavirus crisis, and what this could mean for the future of work in the legal sector.
Most of the sector was not set up for the majority of its workforce to be remote. While some shifts, such as switching to telephone hearings, have been relatively easy to make, the fact remains that the court system is not equipped to deal with remote working practices and the pressures of lockdown.
“The pandemic has forced the legal sector to recognise the value and practicality of working remotely” says Milad Shojaei, a County Court Advocate at LPC Law. How various parts of the sector implement this, however, will be the truest test of adaptability and future-proofing. There are already murmurings of a greater reliance on automation, with legal tech stepping in to streamline processes such as document assembly and practice management.
An issue that has come up time and time again in various reports and tweets is the problematic reliance we have on paper and printing. This appears to have been more of a problem for trainees or juniors, with many of them reportedly returning to family homes equipped with more suitable home offices than their flatshares. The reliance on hard copies of documents we have in the legal sector seems at odds with an increasingly digital world — begging the question: will this cause an overhaul of current systems and workflows?
If 2019 was the year that legal tech boomed on the investment side, we predict that 2020 will be the year this tech is adopted en masse by lawyers themselves. It is notable that the technologies being picked up most are not the heavyweight, hi-tech solutions to industry-specific problems, but simple tools for everyday tasks: video conferencing for remote meetings, and pdf software for analysing documents on a laptop. We are going to see those tools become deeply integrated into the practice of law.
There is also, of course, the concern of a potential economic downturn to consider. Inevitably, some firms will have to tighten their belts, looking to cut overhead costs where they can. At this point, many partners may begin to wonder whether paying for large, expensive office space is the best use of a firm’s money when activity during the coronavirus pandemic has proven that remote working is possible. We anticipate the office space as we know it will radically change, taking on a primary function as a meeting place. One Forbes reporter also highlights the possibility of offices becoming more accommodating to different ways of working — incorporating places for focus, collaboration, learning and socialisation into the fabric of the office design.
The need to adapt extends beyond the office, though. Just this week, New York administrative judges announced that they would be debuting virtual court operations for three of its Judicial Districts. This is something we are already seeing in the UK, with the introduction of the Online Court, which allows certain smaller value claims to be decided completely online, and will soon be expanding. How will this influence the way court proceedings are carried out in the future?
A remote workforce isn’t the only problem that has surfaced amid the coronavirus crisis. Fears have arisen about employee wellbeing. It’s no secret that stress is a prevalent issue across the industry, and many have voiced concerns on the added implications of isolation on mental wellbeing for lawyers.
Could this crisis mark a turning point in employee care? With this added focus on ensuring that everybody who is working from home is coping, and a concerted effort made to keep in touch via videoconferencing and messaging tools, it’s fair to assume that the culture of law will undergo changes.
We may begin to see less of a focus on the cut-throat atmosphere we have all come to see as normal and pay closer attention to the people we work with on a daily basis. Taylor Wessing is a prime example of this. While the firm already provided a premium subscription to a popular meditation app to their employees, they have recently decided to extend this to their future trainees. Furthermore, during this crisis, Taylor Wessing is implementing several other initiatives to maintain staff wellbeing — including virtual yoga, guided meditation and choir. The coronavirus has highlighted to companies how important it is for its workforce to be engaged and motivated, and the lessons learned during this time are likely to influence company culture for years to come.
One thing is for sure, COVID-19 is set to change many aspects of working in the legal sector and there will need to be a willingness to adapt to change, or risk being left in the dust. The sector as a whole must use this situation to ensure it is ready not just for a future crisis, but a more flexible way of working generally.
This article was published was subsequently published on the Legal Futures website on 20th April 2020.