Changes in ways of delivering legal services
The business of law practice changed drastically from what it was prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, what it looked like during the quarantine and lockdown, to what it must evolve into during the entry to the new normal. Prior to Covid-19, a sense of urgency marked the practice of law: firms performed services that correlated with high client intake, client retention and, of course, high income flow. Legal professionals met face-to-face with clients and appeared in court in person. The Covid-19 quarantine and lockdown, however, saw billable hours deflated when litigation stalled. When courtrooms closed, hearings and depositions were canceled, rescheduled or postponed indefinitely, hours were shrunk.
Just like any business, law firms suffered a decrease in income during the quarantine and lockdown. Firstly, the demand for legal services plunged when firm clients’ businesses stopped operations. According to Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute, a survey of 60 law firms in the US from March until May 2020 showed that the demand for legal services dropped an average of five (5%) per cent. Second, even if there is some demand for legal services, firms struggled to adapt to the constraints of social distancing.
Legal staff stayed home and tried to work from home. They drafted digitized documents, contracts, and correspondence. Staff also sent documents to clients for approval and signing via email. They interviewed and conferred with clients through conference calls and video calls. During the quarantine period, law firms looked ahead and braced themselves for the looming struggle to sustain their fiscal viability. They coped by searching for new tools to help them deliver services in a new way.
As law firms went on survival mode to keep afloat, they conserved cash by cutting costs and reducing overhead expenses. Law firms that have not yet laid off employees have implemented firm-wide pay cuts for staff and partners. Firms froze their summer internship programs while others froze the hiring of new associates. Some firms have furloughed their clerical and support staff, some have laid off associates. A report by the US Department of Labor shows that about 64,000 jobs in the legal industry have been cut in April and May 2020. To understand where your law firm is being affected most, many law firms utilize reports and analytics features to breakdown the analysis of the largest income loss and cut those expenses, or repurpose them.
Preparing to shift to virtual deliver of legal services
During the quarantine and lockdown, even courts and judges reckoned that virtual hearings and virtual trials may become the new customary in litigation practice. Firms needed to envision and create new ways of delivering the same legal services to their clients. Doing so while also maintaining the high quality of those legal services. For legal practitioners going forward in the new normal, the concept of a virtual law firm does not seem like science fiction anymore. In fact, some legal professionals have opined that the Covid-19 pandemic may just propel the legal and judicial system to modernize and keep apace with technological advances.
During the new normal, the use of the internet and information technology will blur the physical and digital spheres of legal practice. Legal services will be offered, performed and accepted more through the internet and less through physical person-to-person interactions. As firms downsize their staff, routine legal tasks may need to be done by minimal staff manning computer systems. Client contact may also shift from face-to-face to virtual contact through video conferencing. Firms must level up to more powerful hardware and more sophisticated software. Sadly, many firms and legal practitioners are not prepared for the new ways of doing legal work. To ease the shift to online work, law firms have taken up new modern legal software that help facilitate e-lawyering. Features such as e-signatures, inter-firm online chats, and document automation have proven necessary for easy remote work.
Challenges of staff working remotely
Assuming that the firm can afford the upgrade and transition to the new normal of legal practice, heads of firms must lead and collaborate with their staff who are working remotely. Team leaders working on a case or project must orchestrate the work done by staff under their supervision. One big concern is making work efficient and secure. If prior to Covid-19, 75% of lawyers worked from home once a month, a new study by Loeb Leadership has found that after the quarantine and lockdown, as much as 67% of lawyers and legal staff want to continue working from home even when the restrictions of quarantine are eased. This is understandable as staff may be anxious to re-enter the workplace and risk getting infected at a time when no vaccine is available as yet.
New demands in new ways of working
Working from home is double-edged: firms will cut costs because they no longer need to rent or maintain huge office spaces. At the same time, their staff’s productivity may decline without in-person supervision and monitoring. Supervisors must have a way to ensure that staff who work remotely set aside time and space for work. Physically, the firm must ensure that staff working from home has the adequate equipment. A computer and screen with a high-quality webcam, headphones and microphone dedicated to do only their legal work. Their workspace at home must look professional when they video-conference with clients. It must have minimal distractions, ample lighting and have a comfortable desk and chair.
The challenges of working remotely can be appeased by using legal softwares that help manage a practice from the cloud and make sure staff is efficient. A cloud-based software will allow attorneys and employees to access their information from anywhere at any time. You can send tasks directly to employees with progress and completion bars, as well as due dates, reminders, and inter-firm chats to keep communication and case progress as up to date as possible.
Firms must that the first step to adjusting to the new normal. For many, the first step may be to evaluate the current hardware and software they use. They must see what types of applications they need to support the shift into the new ways of delivering legal services. Firms must also decide issues. For example, site hosting of their cloud storage and computing, the bandwidth of their internet at the office and the type of internet connection their staff have at home. The capacity and durability of the firm’s hardware and the flexibility of its software determine the volume of work done. Furthermore, the efficiency of communication and monitoring of staff, and the soundness of their cybersecurity, and eventually, the satisfaction of their clients.
Capabilities of upgraded and updated software
The question that arises then is what kind of software application is best to choose? What can software applications do to support law firms in the new normal? Legal experts have agreed that the following basic functions in new software are necessary and desirable for law firms to continue performing to a high standard. The software they adopt must enable firms to achieve their four main goals to streamline practice, improve task-organization, maximize performance and drive more revenue.
Easy login for staff working remotely
The software application the firm chooses must have an easy way for staff to log in the hours for the work they perform. Digital tools for tracking hours automates payroll preparation. More importantly, logged-in time entries should enable the firm to report and prepare invoices to bill their clients.
Another challenge for firms in the new normal is that their software must enable staff members to collaborate with each other. Employees must be able to reach each other, even when they work remotely. Supervisors and managers must be able to track and monitor the work done remotely by their staff. All members of a team should know which tasks they are responsible for at all times. In this way, no deadlines are missed and the high quality of services is maintained. They must be able to create tasks and set deadlines. The software must be able to sync the firm’s and the staff member’s calendar. In this way, all team member can keep track of their workflow, their to-dos and tasks done.
Remote document access
The staff must be able to access all relevant and necessary documents which they can then work on together remotely. Most firms maintain external hard drives to store documents but these hard drives are located on the premises of the firm. When staff work from outside the office, they must be able to connect to the document storage securely. Thus, cloud-based document storage and security will be more cost-efficient and secure.
Information and data security and storage
As firms transition to leaner staffing and smaller office spaces, they must think of handling and storing personal information of and privileged communication with their clients. New procedures, processes and protocols must be adapted for more rigorous cybersecurity measures. Furthermore, staff must be trained to comply with more stringent cybersecurity measures. Aside from this, firms must invest time in establishing a firewall and running antivirus software. Their staff must be trained to routinely backup important data; to secure their home WiFi routers, to enable two-step authentication for logins; and to detect phishing tricks.
Client contact management
Information gathered from new clients that used to be done through in-person interviews can now be done through online client in-take forms. Interactions with clients must be integrated with platforms to keep clients informed of the progress of their matters. Software must come with shared client portals where clients are provided with information as to the status of their case. This creates transparency and reduces anxiety in clients. Clients can also gain peace of mind if they are sent reminder emails and notifications of important steps, court dates, deadlines and other milestones in their matters. If their presence or personal involvement and appearance is required, then automated notifications will make practice more efficient.
Online payment portal
Clients will appreciate ease of payment. Giving clients various ways of replenishing funds in escrow is crucial. Making payments for services reduces the time spent in collecting fees and bringing income into the firm.
Clients will also appreciate when they can securely sign documents and contracts online. Instead of scanning, printing and signing documents by hand as most other law firms offer. This reduces stress and man-hours spent on clerical tasks.
Lastly, firms must be able to generate reports. Using tools to help them determine not only the income earned, income receivable but also examine which marketing channels work and which referral sources deliver revenue. Lawyers must be able to analyze the types of legal matter that they take on. The services that earn the most income for their firms can be analyzed directly on the software.
While the Covid-19 quarantine blindsided the legal profession and stalled the business of law firms, it allowed legal professionals to creatively find new ways of practicing the law profession. Difficulties can yet be turned into opportunities with the proper tools.