One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic is how rapidly and effectively the legal industry is innovating in response to remote work mandates. And based on conversations that I have had with GCs of large corporations and big law partners, the dominant sentiment regarding changes to the workplace has been very positive.
In fact, top legal professionals in this large law sector, whose jobs are focused on innovation, are invigorated by what they see. A decade’s worth of social and technological innovation has happened in just a few months. Cultural resistance in the profession to doing things differently — which has been pervasive for decades — has virtually evaporated, opening up a multitude of opportunities for further innovation and for serving clients in new and productive ways.
These opportunities are especially welcome as COVID-19 presents other challenges related to risk, liability, privacy, compliance, and legislative changes. The continued technological advances and product launches we are seeing amidst this crisis are a perfect example of ways the legal industry is pivoting and adopting to stay abreast for themselves and their clients.
Mandates and existing infrastructure drive rapid change
Before detailing the success story, however, let’s acknowledge the transition to remote work has not gone smoothly for every organization, particularly for those that did not already have infrastructure like IP telephony in place before the pandemic arrived or were not already working at least somewhat in the cloud. Some firms struggled to adapt because suddenly they were trying to do two things at once — rolling out new technology in a virtualized environment while training their employees to adopt and use that technology effectively.
But for firms that were laying the groundwork for the future before the pandemic hit — that had already replaced traditional phone systems with VoIP and had been using applications like Zoom or Microsoft Teams to conduct meetings — the outcome has been positive. The pivot to remote work was not only exceptionally fast (as little as 12 hours for some firms) but adoption rates, which typically hover around 60% in law firm technology rollouts, are very close to 100%. Almost overnight we learned that with some basic infrastructure in place and a mandate forcing the removal of barriers to acceptance and adoption, dramatic transformation can happen very quickly — opening the door to further innovation and more creative thinking down the road.
The resilience with which firms have made the current transition would have been unthinkable when they were responding to the Great Recession of 2008. That’s when we saw a compression of rates, reduction of budgets and the migration of work in-house. But there’s little room left for that kind of cost-cutting now, and the kind of innovation the current crisis highlights tells a very different story.
Lawyers now realize they no longer must work down the hall from colleagues to be effective. Firms are exploring new ways to collaborate with clients (who are also learning to work remotely). Associates initially wondering, “When will we get back to work?” understand that the old ways of working are no longer obligatory.
Suddenly organizations are able to implement improvements to some of the most ingrained processes and bottlenecks in their workflows because the cultural barriers have vanished. The hard work and hard choices that progressive firms have been making to increase their agility and position themselves to compete in a dynamic digital and global marketplace are now paying off in a big way.
Addressing the human side of rapid technological change
While implementation of remote-work technology has been remarkably frictionless for many firms, a more subtle problem has been managing changes in the way employees interact with each other and with clients. Many of us did not anticipate, for example, that transitioning to virtual forms of communication could present challenges when it comes to mentoring younger colleagues and nurturing the ongoing learning that happens between lawyers with different levels of experience and at various stages in their careers.
Before the pandemic, it may not have been obvious that effective learning and collaboration cannot always be accomplished by a phone call. Firms are discovering that a thoughtful approach to setting up videoconferences is essential to see the body language and facial expressions of colleagues (and clients) and understand how they are responding. Using an application like Zoom, for example, is not automatically the equivalent of having a conversation around a conference room table where people can interact naturally in a very personal way. Some firms are experimenting with various applications and deploying them in a way that preserves the nuances of human interactions. Achieving high rates of technology adoption means finding ways to change human behavior and habits, and this requires an open mind and a willingness to try different approaches to implementation.
Changing technology priorities
Firms also report their technology priorities have changed radically in the wake of the pandemic.
Initially, investigation of AI tech solutions took a back seat to the required implementation of remote working applications and transition to the cloud. But now, many firms are refocusing on process and financial improvements and the use of data, analytics and technology to inform those improvements.
Other firms are accelerating efforts around matter planning and mapping additional services and technology offerings for every practice area, and using the data generated across the litigation lifecycle to build out more precise budgeting and pricing, develop more effective leveraging strategies, and make more effective use of the work product and knowledge stores they already have.
At the same time, organizations of all sizes need guidance on liabilities and risks associated with office openings (i.e. requirements of employees working from home/coming on site, social distancing procedures on site, etc.), accounting for government loans, legislation related to data-sharing and data privacy, the use of force majeure clauses, actions related to company growth and shareholder value.
Much of this information can be quickly and easily obtained through various legal tech products from eDiscovery to practical guidance. And despite the pandemic, we have seen several companies announce free resources, product enhancements and even new products that lawyers are gravitating toward to serve their clients.
Redefining value for clients
Finally, firms understand their clients may worry that work-at-home mandates could undermine the quality of the legal services they are paying for, and they realize clients are in a more leveraged position in the current environment to make decisions regarding outside counsel. Alignment of innovation initiatives with clients’ strategic business interests has taken on a new urgency. Firms are actively engaging clients in critical discussions about their needs, priorities and expectations to ensure they are delivering the value their clients expect.
Firms can no longer talk about client outcomes in abstract terms. There need to be ways to measure outcomes, whether the focus is on speed, efficiency or simplifying complex problems. Discussions of substantive legal issues continue, of course, but firms are also asking clients to talk about how their needs have shifted. One firm partner told me he has had more Zoom calls with clients in the last month than he did face-to-face meetings over a six-month period before the pandemic. Jumping on a video call is now the default, and in many ways that small shift in the use of technology has cultivated a more personal connection with clients and deeper understanding of client pain points.
The legal world is undergoing a sea of change, but many leaders I have talked to are more optimistic than ever. The fear that traditionally comes with change and innovation has evaporated in the wake of a remarkably rapid and largely successful adaptation to remote work, both on the firm side and the client side. There’s a new sense of empathy among firm employees and between firms and their clients, and everyone is busy imagining new ways to work smarter and collaborate more effectively.
Josh Becker, an expert on leveraging technology to improve the practice of law, is LexisNexis head of legal analytics and chairman of Lex Machina. He also leads the LexisNexis Legaltech Accelerator program. Previously, Becker served as Lex Machina CEO for seven years leading strategy and operations. During his tenure, Lex Machina was acquired by LexisNexis.