What did life before COVID-19 look like? Zoom was just another app. Banana bread was a special treat, and laundry baskets weren’t full of just sweatshirts. It’s an understatement to say that the pandemic has forced us to challenge much of what we knew. Although we could debate the pandemic’s overall effects for years, its impact on the legal industry has been direct and profound. Here seven significant ways that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the legal industry:
1. Virtual Law Practices
Remote work is currently transforming many industries, and the legal profession is no exception. However, this began well before COVID-19. Law firms that previously embraced this remote trend now reap the benefits. Their pivot to virtual firms allowed them to cultivate a culture where lawyers often work outside of the office, which is important for firms in the “post-COVID” period.
Overall, law firms appear to have adjusted well to the sudden changes in how the practice of law is carried out in a world rocked by a global pandemic. Through platforms like Zoom and Rocket Matter, they can continue to provide legal services, bill their clients, and communicate with them. These digital platforms had made it possible for lawyers to collaborate and become closer than ever before, which was previously challenging through individual meetings.
2. Increased Accessibility to CLE Courses and Legal Conferences
Many states require lawyers meet mandatory continuing legal education (CLE) requirements to remain in practice. The rise of virtual courses and conferences allows attorneys to stay on top of changes in the legal field, best practices, and technology without taking time away from their legal practice.
The legal community met this need during the pandemic by offering online and on-demand CLE courses and transitioning many popular in-person conferences to virtual events (e.g. ABA TECHSHOW). While in-person events are a great opportunity to network and learn from experts in the field, technology allows many of the same advantages from the comfort of your office without necessitating the need for travel.
3. Difficulty in Finding Clients
In the American Bar Association’s recent study “Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward“, it was reported that 52% of lawyers thought that securing business was harder or much harder than the previous year. This was regardless of age, gender, or race.
There are several factors that could have potentially played a role in this. Social distancing, quarantine, and other COVID guidelines could have negatively impacted the number of people who were seeking legal counsel to begin with. And since the pandemic forced many to start spending the majority of their lives online, law firms might have seen a reduced amount of clients if they lacked any sort of internet presence (i.e. a website or social media.)
Regardless, it will be interesting to see whether or not this statistic will hold firm in the post-pandemic world.
4. Greater Levels of Stress
The same ABA study showed that lawyers have been experiencing higher levels of stress in trying to manage work and home, higher levels of disengagement with the social aspects of work, and more frequent thoughts about whether or not full-time work is really worth the hassle.
The findings showed there was an even greater impact of stress across certain races and ethnicities:
“Compared to a year ago, lawyers of color have even higher levels of stress about work; are more likely to
think the day never ends; have greater difficulty taking time off from work; feel overwhelmed
with all the things they have to do; feel it is hard to keep work and home separate; and find work
disrupted by family and household obligations. In contrast, White lawyers were significantly
more likely than lawyers of color to miss seeing people at the office, feel disengaged from their
firm or employer, think it would be better to work part-time or to stop working entirely.”
Women also reported much higher stress in regards to work disruption than their male counterparts, specifically when it comes to household obligations. Women also reported that they feel it is hard to keep work and home separate, are overwhelmed with all the things they have to do, feel as if their days never end, and have trouble taking time off from work.
Even with the increased stress, 80% of those that were surveyed continued to work full-time or close to full-time. This is exacerbated by the fact that workloads during the pandemic were not substantially reduced. Needless to say, there are many more lawyers now who are seriously considering whether to step back into a part-time role or leave the profession altogether.
5. Virtual Courtrooms
With the strict social distancing guidelines in place throughout much of the pandemic, most federal and state courts transitioned to virtual courtrooms during the pandemic. Though some courts have used virtual proceedings before, this is the first time that it has been so widely used.
Several judges have expressed a desire for video to become a permanent part of court operations, while others have expressed concerns that remote proceedings may impede justice. In a California civil case, virtual jury selection led to a mistrial request. The defendants argued that the plaintiff appeared to be talking casually with the potential jurors while the lawyers and judge were conversing separately on video chat. According to the lawsuit, another juror was “working out on an elliptical machine.” Another seemed to be curled up in a bed and possibly asleep.
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law states that although the rise of remote technology may pose many challenges for fair judicial proceedings, there is no doubt that it has also been a vital tool for courts in the midst of the pandemic. To help facilitate future adoption of this format, the center has developed a thorough set of principles for continued use of remote court proceedings.
6. Job Loss and Downsizing
Many companies have let go of employees to save on real estate expenses considering the pandemic-driven economic downturn. The remaining lawyers and staff work primarily from home and have grown accustomed to it.
After the pandemic hit law firms and legal departments, Thomson Reuters found the industry had lost 64,000 jobs, or 5.5 percent of its total employment—a nearly 20-year low. Bloomberg Law found that around half of the top 100 companies cut salaries or hired fewer staffers, among other cost-cutting measures.
The number of law firms that have reduced their office space in recent years has also increased because of financial pressures and changing needs. A report from commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, Bright Insight: The 2020 National Legal Sector Benchmark Survey Results, found that firms that renewed or signed new leases in 2019 decreased their occupied square footage by 10.6%. They also found that more than half of the over 900 firms that participated expected their firm’s real estate portfolio to shrink by over 10% because of COVID-19.
7. A Shift Towards The Cloud (And Other Technology)
Many law firms were already moving their operations to the cloud before COVID-19 became effective. Since the pandemic forced many law firms to pivot to full-time remote work, it was imperative that they adopt cloud-based technology in order to maintain business continuity.
Cloud-based practice management software provides a dependable, low-cost solution for law firms to run their businesses from anywhere. Case management solutions such as Rocket Matter provide law firms with tools they need to keep track of clients, stay on top of their cases, and also bill their clients and collect electronic payments.
Many companies are wondering why they didn’t move to the cloud earlier in the pandemic’s wake. With time, more and more businesses will migrate to the cloud as they begin to see the many benefits this technology has to offer, including the ability to survive the operational and financial consequences of any future global disturbances.
The pandemic has rocked the entire legal community, with both lasting positive and negative effects. COVID-19 will continue to impact the legal profession and the justice system, and many will have to react and adapt quickly to these changes. If legal professionals remain flexible in their approach and keep up with changing regulations, it will prepare them for their clients, the court, and their communities.