Almost overnight, law firms of all types and sizes were forced to completely rethink how they operate when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the shutdown of states across the country. In some sense, every law firm became a virtual law firm, relying on systems that allow them to work remotely from home or some other non-office location.
For most law firms, client work did not slow down in the early days of the pandemic. In fact, clients required more attention as they navigated issues across the spectrum from leases to employee matters, to financial issues, to what to do about suspended court hearings.
As law firms transition to the virtual world, what does virtual practice look like? There are a few critical elements to a virtual practice and each has become more prominent as the office shutdowns caused by the pandemic have worn on.
Matter management and collaboration. Managing a matter can be more difficult in the virtual world. An associate, paralegal, or executive assistant is not able to walk between offices to coordinate documents and lawyers are not able to meet in a conference room for discussions or to markup documents. In the virtual world, matter management requires document collaboration tools, screenshare technologies, and virtual meeting rooms. More firms are adopting co-authoring tools so multiple lawyers can work on a document at the same time. Chatting tools help to keep team conversations more natural.
Core law firm functions. When the pandemic hit and courts and offices were shutdown, basic law firm functions like signing contracts or notarizing documents became nearly impossible. Technologies that had existed for a long time but had not been adopted quickly became a life-line allowing for the process of law to continue. E-signature technologies became the new norm for many documents and courts and state agencies quickly changed rules to permit signing documents using these tools. Notaries were permitted to use electronic means to notarize documents. These are just a few examples of how process-focused technology was universally adopted so as to not cause additional harm beyond the direct impact of the pandemic, quickly shedding the “way things have always been done” mind-set.
Client communications. Client meetings have become more difficult. It is no longer possible to meet a client for lunch or dinner or host a client at the firm’s office to discuss a matter. Client meetings that used to take place in person are no longer an option for most firms. Through these challenges, firms are rising to the moment to meet client where they are, finding effective methods to communicate. Lawyers have upped their skills with virtual meeting tools, have made phone discussions easier through call services that work on a client’s phone or computer, and have improved response rates with emails.
Marketing. For firms in competitive client markets, the pandemic has posed a challenge for marketing the firm. Law firms have had to rely on new marketing ideas to stay front of mind. Firms that were able to provide helpful advice to clients in the early days of the pandemic found that clients were responsive and appreciative. 2020 has been a challenging year for all types of clients and firms that are able to leverage their internal legal, marketing, and technological skills are more likely to have success.
Managing the firm. As important as it is for a law firm to know its customers, it is equally, if not more important for the law firm to know itself. Law firm managers always pay attention to how busy the firm is and the type of work the firm is doing, but in the fast-paced legal environment caused by the pandemic, law firms need to understand what they are working on more than ever. Technologies like Accurate Legal Billing (ALB) provide dashboards that make law firm metrics easy to digest and help turn data into actionable items for law firm leaders. ALB can help law firm managers track how busy the firm is including identifying busy or slow practices and lawyers. ALB can also help managers track financials, such as accounts receivable and inventory (hours billed but not yet paid). Now more than ever, having this information readily accessible is critical to a law firm’s success.
E-billing and electronic payments. Just as every law firm has become a virtual law firm, every bill has become, at least in part, an e-bill. For firms that were slow to adopt e-billing, this technology has become an essential part of getting bills paid. Tools like ALB take e-billing a step beyond sending bills and receiving payment. ALB is built around your client’s billing guidelines and is configured to ensure that bills are produced following these guidelines. This saves time for each timekeeper, avoiding rounds of edits of the bill before it is sent to the client. Clients are more likely to accept the bill and pay it quickly – all critical to firm financial success.
What hasn’t worked. Technology has not been the panacea for all challenges law firms have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, some parts of the legal industry and justice system in the United States have found it difficult to adjust to this new normal.
Courts. The pandemic has posed significant challenges for courts around the country. Many courts remain closed deep into 2020. Virtual meetings have allowed for some proceeding to occur, but in a broad way, courts have not been able to adjust. Litigation has slowed or even stopped as cases are put on hold indefinitely. The courts are neither equipped to function in the virtual world nor funded sufficiently to be able to implement the necessary technology to function. This should be a wake-up call that the justice system needs investment in many key areas now and into the future.
Expense of technology. Many law firms are hesitant to make the investment in technologies that may not be needed in a few months if law firm operations return to something like it was before the pandemic. The economic realities of the pandemic mean that firms have to make the judgement call on whether to implement technology or wait out the pandemic. In fact, many of the changes law firms are making today to adjust to the pandemic and move into the virtual world are here to stay long after the pandemic ends. Law firms should make strategic investments wherever possible to prepare for the new way of practicing.
Security of client data. With implementing technology comes the ethical obligation to safeguard client data. Regardless of the tools a firm may choose to implement, there must also be a clear and thorough data security plan in place. There are any number of risks posed by hackers through methods like fishing emails and other techniques. The good news is that there are numerous tools available to help law firms identify and implement the right technologies to protect their client data.
The Future is Now. Technology has been central to how law firms have adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, all law firms have become virtual law firms and some technology tools, long shunned or thought of as nice-to-have, became critical to how law firms operate. From matter management to law firm management to billing and collections, technologies old and new have been adopted by law firms at a rate never seen before. Not every sector of the legal industry and justice system have been able to use technology to continue operating during the pandemic, but, after adjusting for the differences in the adoption curve across different areas of practice, it is clear technology has had a large hand in law firm success in 2020.
Regardless of the sector, the recipe for success is the same: focus on high-priority technologies and on adoption. The legal industry and the justice system will not be the same after the pandemic, shaped by newly adopted technologies and a shedding of the old “this is the way we have always done it” mentalities. Law firms and their clients will benefit from this shift in mentality in the long term.