July 01, 2021 July/August 2021

Future Proofing: Necessity Is the Mother of Legal Innovation

Dan Pinnington & Reid Trautz

We all experienced the pandemic in our own way. We saw our professional and personal lives upended in countless ways, and many of us lost loved ones. But we did our best to cope.

Most of us moved from colleague-filled commercial offices with high-speed internet to home offices with much slower internet and family members. We switched from desktops to laptops, and from Starbucks to home-brewed. We moved from face-to-face meetings to virtual interactions using Zoom. All this happened in a matter of days.

As time went on, our dress code became more casual. We upgraded our home internet and improved our Wi-Fi to achieve office-like speeds and keep family members happy. We finally opened Teams (which for many had sat dormant in our Microsoft 365 subscription) and adopted other technologies we had never considered using.

In the end, 2020 was not as financially bad as it first appeared it might be. And surprise, surprise, the work still got done despite all the changes we experienced. We made do with far less paper, and senior partners survived without having associates immediately outside their office doors, awaiting their beck and call.

Lessons Learned

Necessity was the catalyst that foisted many pandemic-related changes upon us—a great many of which members of the profession resisted in the past. As we leave the pandemic behind, there are lessons to be learned from these changes, many of which are harbingers of the future of legal services. We changed the way we do business, and the sky didn’t fall. In doing so we learned that:

Legal Services Can Be Virtual

Literally for centuries, getting legal advice entailed a face-to-face visit with a lawyer at their office. To impress clients, that office typically had lots of wood paneling, marble and soaring views, along with hard-earned diplomas and bar certificates. The visit to the lawyer’s office, which was once a security measure to keep paper files confidential, need not continue as a tradition now that cloud-based technologies allow us to securely offer virtual services. This ritual was comfortable for the lawyer and helped maintain the monopoly on legal advice and the mystique of attorney-client relationship, but it was never really comfortable or convenient for the client.

Work from home and Zoom ended these traditions, virtually overnight. While many lawyers look forward to working from their primary offices again, many clients will now prefer a virtual visit over the inconvenience of a visit to your office.

Clients Pay for Legal Advice and ServiceNot Fancy Offices

As a corollary to the lesson above, we must understand that clients value and are paying for our legal advice. Being accessible and available to clients is more important than impressing clients with a fancy office. Score one for the client here.

Virtual Services Are a Win for Lawyers, Too

As we learned to practice from our home offices (at least several days per week), we also learned that commuting was not the best use of our time. Many of us slept in a little longer, while others used the extra time for exercise or family activities. We can work out during the middle of the day when the gym is less crowded; we can slip in medical or other personal appointments more easily, and we can spend a little more time with family rather than those strangers on the evening train. We learned you don’t need to be at your primary office every day to have a successful practice.

We also learned we can time-shift our workday a bit to partake in fun activities, because we can make up for that work at other times. But there is also the temptation to put in more work hours because your office is just a few feet from the rest of your life. Many of us haven’t quite found that balance yet, but we all will. No one has died wishing they’d spent more time in the office, and no one has lived wishing they could spend every minute with family. The balance is there to be found—even by those demanding partners.

Firm Culture and Communication Still Matter

While there are benefits of working from home, we need to be aware of what we miss by not being in an office. As noted by legal futurist Jordan Furlong in a post on his Law21 blog, those serendipitous conversations at the copier or coffee maker really do matter—beyond being an opportunity for touching base on a specific file, for mentoring and learning, for spontaneous creativity and brainstorming, and most importantly, for casual social and personal interactions with office colleagues.

These impromptu interactions are critical for staff engagement and career growth. In this new world of a distributed workforce, we need to find ways to maximize the time when people can be together in the office and other ways that firm staff can interact with each other.

We Must Adopt Technology

The majority of lawyers and staff at many firms were not fully set up with a laptop and other technologies to work from home. Had you ever done a Zoom call prior March of 2020? Or signed a document with a digital signature? While we lost many billable hours watching the “lawyer with the kitty filter” video and sometimes struggled to get new apps running on our phones and computers, most of us figured out, by necessity, how to use many new technologies to allow working from home. Despite the headaches along the way, we survived and even thrived.

While many courts were shut down at the start of the pandemic, they are getting back up to speed with new e-filing options and virtual hearings. And virtual hearings are more efficient as they eliminate the dead time and extra billable hours that come from waiting at the courthouse for your hearing time. Great news for clients!

Mental Health Matters

The pandemic expanded or created new stresses on all of us. As a result, some lawyers, law firm staff and their family members experienced more difficult challenges and even mental health issues. While staff were reluctant to take vacations, these personal challenges resulted in more prevalent use of medical leave. Many firms have stepped up to support their employees by adapting policies in response. They encouraged their employees to take vacation time—to de-stress—despite the fact they would only be staying at home. More importantly, this has opened the conversation to discuss mental health and the stressors of practice. As a profession, let’s keep that conversation going in every firm and across all bar associations and law societies.

We Need to Pay Attention to Client Communications and Expectations

While clients were understanding and more willing to accept slower or delayed responses during the pandemic, they will be less tolerant going forward. They have become to used to doing many things online, and they will expect that lawyers update their processes and adopt technologies to be more accessible and efficient. Lawyers need to continue to work in new ways, and they must be prepared to invest in technology and training for staff.

At LAWPRO we are seeing more malpractice claims involving clerical errors and miscommunications where the lawyer didn’t seem to fully understand what the client needed or wanted. It appears that serving clients virtually with a remote workforce is resulting in “broken telephone” conversations where information is being miscommunicated or even left out of the exchange. Make sure you take the time to set your clients’ expectations on how you will serve them and how communication will occur with you and your staff.

The Overall Lesson

Despite the heavy toll the pandemic took on our personal and professional lives, the silver lining is that we showed the profession could change and be resilient. We made important changes to serve our clients and serve the interests of justice. Looking down the road ahead, be open to considering additional changes that make sense for you and your clients. You are future-proofing yourself by being resilient and open to change.

Dan Pinnington

President & CEO

Dan Pinnington is the president and CEO of Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company and was the driving force behind the innovative practicePRO claim prevention initiative. He is past editor- in-chief of Law Practice and was chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2007. dan.pinnington@lawpro.ca

Reid Trautz

Director

Reid Trautz is the director of the Practice and Professionalism Center of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He is a long-standing member of the ABA Law Practice Division, serving as chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2012, and currently he serves as co-chair of the Futures Initiative. RTrautz@aila.org

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