The legal landscape across the United States has changed drastically and suddenly in the past several weeks. While some of these changes will only be temporary, others may last for months, years, or may even become permanent.
Now is the time for law firms to plan for the future. Even without knowing exactly what that future will look like, some very strong assumptions can be made.
The effect of the pandemic on the legal market
In some jurisdictions, certain kinds of work, such as litigation, has dried up almost overnight. Courts have put a stop to filing new matters, even online, and hearings and trials are being conducted only on an emergency basis. And while depositions could be conducted virtually, those depositions present additional challenges that some lawyers, clients, or witnesses are unwilling or unable to meet. As businesses experience financial stresses, legal work in retail, hospitality, mergers and acquisitions, and IPOs are also drying up.
Re-opening of business is already beginning in some states. But even when offices re-open, they will not look like they did before. While social distancing has helped “flatten the curve” there is still no cure for the virus, and even when a vaccine is available, there is no guarantee that the vaccine will be effective for everyone, or if it will have to be reformulated every year, like the flu vaccine. That means that whenever offices open, the virus will likely still be part of our lives.
Because of widespread lockdowns, many law firms have already had to adjust how they do business; courts have implemented virtual conferences and oral arguments, and changes in rules about notarization and virtual signatures have been made. Many firms have made cuts to partner and associate pay, or have furloughed or laid off employees. Many have deferred or eliminated their summer associate programs or have taken them virtual. Others have canceled their plans for their 2020 class of associates.
Some of those changes may become permanent. As a result, technology is beginning to be implemented more widely in the legal space, and new technologies are being developed to make it easier to take more legal services virtual. Many clients will be reluctant to pay for travel and time spent waiting for in-person conferences and meetings to take place when they have seen that they can be held virtually for much less time and money.
What does this mean for law firms going forward?
Some practice areas may see much less action even after re-opening, as businesses able to weather the storm look more critically at their budgets and other businesses shut down. Corporate transactional lawyers will likely not be seeing much business for quite a while – businesses are conserving cash and private equity firms will have difficulty raising money.
Other practice areas will be flooded with work: divorce and custody battles, employment law issues related to the pandemic, landlord-tenant litigation resulting, contract disputes, bankruptcy, and foreclosure work are all likely to increase as businesses begin to reopen.
What can law firms do now?
Large law firms offer their clients advantages because they can provide services in multiple jurisdictions and practice areas. As client demands for legal services changes as a result of or in response the changes in the business environment resulting from the pandemic, lawyers have to embrace changes to keep their firms afloat and to provide clients the legal services they need in a way that makes sense both for the lawyer and the clients.
Lawyers can get to work now to determine how their existing clients’ lives, businesses and needs have changed, and to identify solutions to meet those needs. Lawyers who have remained in contact with clients throughout the crisis, checking in to find out how the clients and their businesses are doing, and to brainstorm solutions for the new problems they may be experiencing as a result of the pandemic, will have an advantage.
Even lawyers who know or suspect that their clients will not be needing services in their specific practice areas in the near future can help identify other areas that the firm may be able to assist with, including problems with supply chain disruption, contracts, or debt restructuring.
Law can also put the skills of their lawyers – especially those lawyers in practice areas that are not in as much demand right now – to use in other areas, to prepare to scale up for work in the practice areas that will be in demand, or to identify new service offerings to aid clients with a new set of problems or opportunities. Firms should look beyond traditional practice areas and offices to see how their lawyers can break down traditional silos and collaborate in different ways to offer services to clients.
Technology is an important element in this “new normal.” Not only does implementing smart technology solutions allow for remote work options and continuation of work even for those who must remain at home, but technology can also aid law firms in other ways.
Our ioRefer software can help law firms create multi-disciplinary teams to assist clients with all of their current needs by helping them to identify, collaborate with, and refer business to the professionals in the firm from other practice areas who can help clients with problems they are facing now.