Two weeks ago, I wrote here about a poll of legal administrators on the impact of COVID-19 on law firms, summarizing the findings with the words of novelist Thomas Wolfe, “You can’t go home again.”

I noted then that those who conducted the poll planned to publish a white paper providing more details from the poll and analysis of the results. That white paper is now available, and its top-line takeaway remains that, for law firms, there is no turning back.

“[W]orking from home is here to stay and law firms must accept this reality,” the white paper says, along with all that reality means for how firms organize and delegate work, use technology, and outsource resources.

The non-scientific poll was conducted by the Association of Legal Administrators during a webinar it sponsored, “How to Plan and Manage when Change is the Only Constant.” Some 65 attendees responded to the poll, all of them administrators or working with the legal support function at law firms.

The white paper, published yesterday on the ALA website, was written by the legal companies Integreon and BigHand in cooperation with the ALA and is based on the comments of the presenters who participated in the ALA panel.

“Administrative services will need to continue to morph and change to adapt and support the new normal where work needs to keep moving effectively, without the traditional face-to-face delegation methods,” the white paper says. “The use of technology, outsourced resources, and other efficiency enablers will help firms to not only survive, but flourish.”

The white paper recaps the poll results I reported in my earlier post, most strikingly that 91% of legal administrators believe the changes in working practices brought about by the pandemic, including remote working, are permanent.

Panelist Kacee McCalla, director of human resources operations at law firm Baker Donelson, which accelerated its roll-out of of BigHand’s work-delegation platform to assist with its transition to working from home, said that this means that firms must further adjust to remote work and learn to do it in the best, most-efficient way possible.

Panelist Eric Seeger, principal, law firm strategy and law firm management consulting at Altman Weil, added that what has changed is not the legal work being done, but where people are sitting when they do it. For firms, that means they should focus on how work will get done rather than on where it gets done.

Another finding of the poll was that law firms will accelerate changes to their back-office structures. A 2019 ALA/BigHand survey found that 68% of firms were planning to change their back-office structures within five years. In the webinar poll, 75% of respondents said the current situation will accelerate those changes.

Other findings of the poll included:

  • 74% either agreed or strongly agreed that COVID-19 has made their staff more willing to change their working practices.
  • Visibility of workflow and task delegation is the main challenge faced since support staff has been working from home.
  • 56% of those polled were planning on treating each office location differently when it comes to return to work plans between now and October.
  • A great effort by firms’ IT staff made WFH possible and this is set to remain even as returning to the office is encouraged, said 42% of respondents.

Based on these results, some of the key points in the white paper include:

  • It is important for law firms to make improvements and difficult decisions now. Seeger said the current environment gives firms “cover” to make cuts and changes that may be long overdue.
  • The traditional “secretary outside the door” model is unlikely ever to come back, meaning that firms need to adopt better systems and structures to support their lawyers.
  • Reopening plans must be fluid, with firms balancing peoples’ safety and comfort while maintaining internal morale and equity among employees and quality service to clients.
  • Technology is essential to connecting lawyers and staff and ensuring productivity among home workers.

Other panelists whose comments helped form the white paper included April Campbell, interim executive director of the ALA, who moderated the panel; Murray Joslin, senior vice president of global creative services and business enablement at Integreon; and Eric Wangler, president, North America at BigHand.

Going forward, they agreed, law firms face new and uncharted challenges, says the white paper — one where change is the only constant.

“By facing this new reality head on and making the necessary changes now,” it concludes, “law firms can turn recent changes into long-term advantages — saving money, improving service and gaining an edge over less proactive competitors.”

Download: COVID-19 Has Changed Law Firm Operations and Management Dramatically — What Happens Now?

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.