Law firms are known for rigorous work schedules, long hours at the office, and mandatory in-person appearances in the courtroom. Culturally and logistically, it's not a profession that many thought could transition easily to remote work. But when COVID hit in March 2020, firms had to do just that — and nearly half moved from office to home in just one day.
The shift came with growing pains. In a recent study about the future of legal workflows, 52% of lawyers cited transitioning their teams to a remote work environment as the most significant challenge of the pandemic. But in the intervening months, the legal profession has proved surprisingly adept at adjusting to the new model of work demanded by the pandemic. Firms have shifted their work management systems to the cloud; courts began hearing civic cases virtually, and lawyers have been meeting with their clients over video chat and phone. These moves have not only worked—they've actually made firms more successful, with nearly half the firms surveyed reporting an increase in profits and many noting that the feared plummet in staff productivity never materialized.
The pandemic has changed the legal profession fundamentally, but it's not clear which of the shifts prompted by the pandemic will stick.
The legal profession is shifting dramatically in response to the pandemic, and 70% of law firms in a recent survey acknowledged that it would impact the future of legal work. But as Covid shifts and firms and courts weigh whether to stay the new course or go back to the old ways, not every part of the legal apparatus will transition equally. Ultimately, it will depend on which aspects of the profession are being considered and what both staff and clients prefer.
In a survey by Ari Kaplan Advisors on the future of litigation workflows, 48% of lawyers reported that using video conferencing for professional meetings was the most significant change to how they worked during the pandemic. Still, the lawyer-client relationship weathered the demands of the Covid workforce quite well — and for good reason. Even before the pandemic, lawyers conducted a lot of their business with clients on the phone or over video, especially with corporate clients accustomed to dealing with work virtually. But individual clients also adapted fairly easily to the new normal. These clients — already familiar with going digital in everything from dating to online scheduling and intake forms — tended to thrive in the virtual legal landscape. And while many lawyers are considering returning to in-person client interactions, it's likely that many clients—accustomed to the new system — will continue to demand digital options.
In a recent survey by MyCase, 80% of law firms surveyed reported transitioning to working remotely full- or part-time. The transition to remote work has been surprisingly successful for the day-to-day operations of a firm, with lawyers relying on cloud-based management tools, video conferencing technology for client meetings, and a suite of online programs for everything from notarizing documents to billing hours. But when it comes to other aspects of the job, it's different. Courtrooms, for example, depend on and process huge volumes of paper documents. And while early experiments with virtual hearings have been successful, the digital courtroom is no match for the real thing — especially when it comes to trials, which rely on in-person connections between lawyers, judges, and juries. In other words, while legal staff might work from home successfully, the more interpersonal aspects of the law might not go virtual as easily. The result will likely be a hybrid, offering remote solutions in areas where it's most beneficial but sticking to in-person in areas that demand a physical presence.
But remote work isn't simply about whether people work in-person or virtually. It's also about how work happens—and how well. When it comes to shaping the future of legal work, the challenges and opportunities will come down to how to organize, inspire, and work efficiently both in the office, and anywhere else.
The pandemic was stressful for employees everywhere — and the legal profession was no exception. As lawyers attempted to adjust to the chaos of working from home, 20% reported having trouble meeting their billable hour goals. But as firms and managers found new ways to work remotely, productivity didn't plummet, and staff rose to the challenge. Now, both managers and staff know it's possible to work remotely, and many employees demand it. But some lawyers are clinging to the old ways, demanding in-person work or micro-managing remote work — requiring their teams to stick to restrictive dress codes or schedules. However, successful post-pandemic firms will recognize that they must ditch the old-school act and grant their staff more flexibility. But that's not all. As many firms stop paying rent on in-person offices, the smart ones will funnel that extra money and focus toward helping their employees feel supported and engaged, whether that's organizing virtual office gatherings, paying for employee lunches, or hosting activities that bring staff closer together in a non-office setting.
Remote work depends on technology that fosters collaboration, eliminates confusion, and digitizes paper-based processes. In a Kaplan study, 64% of firms were considering upgrading their office technologies to support more remote teams—with 33% investing in collaborative tools, 18% in security, and 15% in risk management. To get the best out of their employees and protect their clients, firms will have to find a digital equivalent for the once in-person processes, while also harnessing the power of digital tools to keep staff and clients feeling seen, heard, and engaged.