October 26, 2020 Feature

The Impact of the Novel Coronavirus on the Legal Profession

Philip L. Harris

We are deep enough into the pandemic to know that the legal profession will never be the same. The recessions that many of us experienced in 1981–1982, 1990–1991, 2001, and 2007–2009 were different from this one. As difficult as previous recessions were for the legal profession, in many respects they were followed by a return to business as usual. As a friend of mine who served for years as the chief operating officer of a large firm likes to say, “Law firms are always trying to turn the clock back.” This is not to say that the legal profession has remained static since 2009. Indeed, as discussed immediately below, an intense focus on controlling legal costs began after 2009, which provides an important context for what is likely to happen now. There is no question that clients will look for lower-cost providers to meet their needs in lucrative areas such as internal investigations, compliance, and defense work. But more than that will change. Out of necessity, the pandemic will result in the transformation of law offices and legal departments. Those that refuse to change will be at a risk to fail. With lower revenues and clients in distress, law offices and legal departments will need to reduce expenses dramatically and on a sustainable basis. Cost reduction will mean taking a serious look at both capital and operating expenses. Here, I will focus on the impact of COVID-19 on the legal operations for law departments (including in higher education), law firm finances, and our culture and diversity. Rather than turning back the clock, our profession has the tools necessary to come out of this stronger than ever if prudent decisions are made. But we must be realistic about the challenge that lies ahead of us, and we must be sensitive to the threats to our culture and diversity.

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