Published on March 26, 2020 by lauraduckett

Close up of womans hands writing a legal document on a laptop

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on everyday life, globally. Governments have issued instructions to self-isolate, entire industries and countries are on lockdown and it seems as though new developments and information are being revealed on a near-daily basis. The severity of the situation and the implications of how it may worsen should these measures not be adhered to simply cannot be overstated.

It is no surprise, therefore, that such actions have had a colossal impact on markets, businesses and general working life around the world. For the legal sector, these new challenges and continuously changing circumstances ask one fundamental question – what lessons must law learn from COVID-19?

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The Ups and Down of Remote Work

The most notable impact COVID-19 has had on a vast majority of workers so far is clearly the impetus on working from home. At the time of writing, the UK has gone into ‘lockdown’ for almost the entirety of the population, with a limited number of scenarios where this can be relaxed. Firstly, however, it’s important to caveat that this unprecedented work from home ‘experiment’ is hardly taking place under normal circumstances, or for reasons many could have foreseen.

It’s quite clear that working from home during a pandemic, with the added anxieties, difficulties and concerns that that brings outside of working life, is nigh-on incomparable to working remotely once a week as part of a flexible working scheme. With that in mind, however, the approach firms must take in providing for this new (short-term?) working reality demands scaling significantly beyond even the most proactive firms in the field of flexible working.

Remote work (at least under normal circumstances) and the capabilities its technology can provide has a number of advantages for the three key stakeholders concerned – firms, their lawyers and their clients. Firstly, for firms, remote working – when done correctly – has been shown to boost productivity, helps companies attract top talent and offered more options for clients to interact with them beyond the brick and mortar walls of their offices.

For lawyers, flexible working policies are clearly of real significance to working parents to balance commitments at home, eliminate lengthy commutes and give them a greater (albeit still limited) degree of control when it comes to when and how they want to do their work. Finally, for clients, they can access sources of legal knowledge without having to travel into offices, perhaps out of usual office hours where needed, in a way that is comfortable to them. The use of cloud-based platforms for the distribution of files and information underpins these three stakeholder benefits by allowing employees to work on matters from wherever they are based, at any time.

However, the above potential positives are littered with presuppositions and potential difficulties, such as assuming firms are sufficiently used to putting these methods into practice and that everything works as it should all of the time. Since when has that ever been a reality? A myriad of potential problems come with an increase in remote working:

  • Potential Data Breaches and Weakening of Confidentiality
  • Clients demanding more in-person facetime from their lawyers to ensure accountability and productivity
  • A reduction in the productivity of remote workers if significant measures and safeguards aren’t put in place

…to name a few. It’s clear that there is a big difference between the theoretical upsides of remote working and where it could practically end up – especially given the urgency and scale of demand for it during the COVID pandemic.

An Experiment in Access to Law

Along similar lines to the remote working points above, courts and judicial systems are having to adapt to these new rules of isolation and social distancing. Richard Susskind has infamously written and predicted a future of full-service online court systems to improve access to justice.

Whilst certainly not being replicated in conditions he imagined, has push come to shove for a greater trial into the use of telephone, video and other digital methods of communication to administrate or even settle cases? With the recent suggestions to the Emergency Coronavirus Bill looking to pursue just that, it appears time will tell.

Client Expectations

As hinted at the beginning of this article, market conditions are rapidly changing in response to the economic cost of these necessary measures to protect public health and ensure the virus’ spread is limited. As a result, it’s quite clear that client expectations and their concerns will shift a good distance from the ‘norm’ throughout this period:

  • Falling demand and typical force Majeure scenarios regarding agreements and future projects are overwhelming the legal space.
  • Proposed mergers & acquisitions are now at an ever-increasing level of risk. Not only has demand fallen, so have stock valuations, as well as a lack of clarity as to whether post-merger business proposals will still be feasible (or even relevant) once the pandemic has begun to be quelled. There’s also the very real threat that individuals who are viewed as critical to the deal’s successful completion could contract the virus.
  • Law firms have ramped up production of digital media methods for information provision – webinars, podcasts and other interactive seminars. Whether this is in response to actual client demand, or rather a market-based pressure to keep up with other firms who are producing such resources, however, is still very much up for debate.

Words: Harry Clark

Harry Clark is a Future Trainee Solicitor at Baker McKenzie, content writer and producer of resources for aspiring lawyers. If you want to read more of his content, you can follow him on Linkedin, Twitter and Instagram, or listen to his podcast ‘More From Law’ on Spotify and iTunes.

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