Over the last year, many of our columns have addressed the impact the pandemic has and will have on the practice of law. Looking back, the world came to a crashing halt and our usual daily activities and routines were disrupted in March, within days of our arrival home from ABA TECHSHOW 2020. As we sat at home still digesting all that we had learned, we saw the start of a new normal for just about everything—although most of us did not realize it at the time.
One of the new normals is the virtual conference. This year—for the first time—ABA TECHSHOW 2021 will be entirely virtual. Several times over the past 20 years, including 2007 and 2012 when we each chaired, the TECHSHOW Planning Board has considered offering virtual content, and while the technology for doing so has improved immensely over that time period, the idea never really took off. Planners assumed anything less than the in-person experience wouldn’t be of much interest to attendees. The pandemic has shattered that thought.
Changes often go unnoticed as they usually occur very slowly, and new perspectives only become obvious by reflecting on the bigger changes that occur over longer periods of time. The pandemic accelerated many changes, and there are lessons to be learned from the contrasts between the old and new normals.
Admittedly, many TECHSHOW regulars, including the writers of this column, get quite excited about new gadgets and technologies. The first iPhone came out in January 2007 and was a hot topic that year, along with the paperless office and e-discovery. For many years, Reid was excited to learn about the latest iPhone or iPad. Dan was often excited to present on a session about the latest BlackBerry and, in 2011, the BlackBerry PlayBook (Does anyone remember the BlackBerry PlayBook?). In 2012 ABA TECHSHOW featured sessions titled “Tablet Wars” and “30+ BlackBerry Apps for Lawyers,” but neither session would be of any interest today.
While it is easy to get excited about the new toys, we need be reminded that it is more important to focus on how the new toys create opportunities for new ways of doing things that will better deliver what clients really need and want.
ABA TECHSHOW 2012 also featured sessions on virtual practice, value-based billing and taking a firm paperless. The sessions were as well attended as the attendees were well intentioned, but we would bet that fewer than a third ever adopted the suggested strategies shared by the faculty. Whether it was deemed too time consuming, too difficult or too costly, many lawyers have believed the business case could not be made to make such drastic changes to these business processes. Until the global pandemic.
The accelerated changes brought about by COVID-19, most of which are enabled by technology, should make this clearer to us. Almost overnight, working from home went from a handful of progressive companies to almost every workplace—including law firms. E-commerce, which many would have said had exploded in recent years, went white-hot nuclear.
As the pandemic progressed, we adapted and other changes evolved. The luxury of the home delivery of groceries went mainstream. Uber saw its ride-sharing business plummet while Uber Eats grew. Companies that sold cloud-based conference software found their products increasingly in demand. Zoom, GoToMeeting and other videoconference tools became a part of our daily lives. As the need to support distributed workforces became apparent, businesses providing cloud-based tools for project management, HR management, remote access and collaboration also saw explosive growth.
Lawyers need to see the lessons that can be learned from the accelerated changes brought about by the pandemic. Consumers changed overnight and are more comfortable than ever buying goods and services online. Stop and think how you’ve changed as a consumer in the past year. How have the businesses in your neighborhood changed? How have your clients changed as consumers? At first blush these may appear to be simple questions, but the answers are complex and may not be obvious—but they hold the key to your future.
Many lawyers still seem to feel that traditional law can compete with newer online or alternative legal service providers. There are firms that have retooled some functions to make them virtual, yet very few have truly revamped their traditional processes to serve clients in new and innovative ways. For many the billable hour is the basis for timekeeping and billing, and it remains the primary measure of client value and firm productivity.
No doubt, there will be some demand for traditional services in some areas of practice, especially on bet-the-farm, bespoke or large-value matters. But if you want to future proof your practice, you must try to see and embrace the new ways in which legal services can be delivered. Many consumers cannot afford the traditional full-service model that most lawyers currently offer. Some want a bit of guidance or help filling out a form or drafting a document. Others need help navigating all or part of a court or tribunal process. Lawyers must scale and price these disparate services so they are profitable for the lawyer and, most importantly, provide affordable service to consumers where none exists now. Whether that is an online delivery model or some other technology-assisted process, there are many potential clients who need and want competent help in a manner different from the traditional law firm delivery model.
Consumers are now used to making purchases 24/7, and they will expect the same for their legal services. And no, that doesn’t mean being available by text or email in the middle of the night because you have an iPhone on your bedside table. It means giving them 24/7 access to legal information, advice or documents using simple automation (which has been around almost since the advent of computers), secure online client portals, and more advanced tools like chat bots and artificial intelligence.
Lastly, and very significantly, it also means making legal services pricing and payment options easy to understand and predictable. This means flat fees and the ability to pay online using a credit card. The pandemic has the potential to finally put the billable hour behind us—at least two to three decades after the demise of the billable hour was first predicted!
While the BlackBerry PlayBook didn’t survive long, much of the new normal resulting from the pandemic was created by using existing technologies, including many that were already widely used, some for a very long time. The new world you see all around you provides the lessons you need to learn to future proof your practice and firm. Not seeing enough examples? TECHSHOW 2021 will feature entire learning tracks on future proofing a practice and a track on disruptive innovation. There you can learn more about how you can leverage new technologies to thrive in the new post-pandemic normal.