Rethinking How Lawyers Work Post Crisis – 1
Last week I joined a virtual lunch hosted by Ari Kaplan (thanks Ari!). We discussed what the legal market might look like post crisis. I raised the idea that, in working from home and living through disruption, we should rethink how lawyers work, not merely replicate from home inefficient processes from the office. That old analogy: “invent a car, don’t mechanize a horse”.
Right now, however, perhaps there is too much urgent work. But if the lockdown lasts and after it ends, the old normal may not return. Now is the time to begin thinking about the future.
To get the conversation going, here are some embryonic ideas, and I think fairly tame ones. I welcome your thoughts and comments.
And after drafting this, I was reminded this morning change requires cultural support. See The evolution to Modern Legal by Jason Barnwell, Assistant General Counsel Microsoft, via Bill Henderson‘s Legal Evolution blog (29 March 2020. Does the crisis give us that support more easily?
More Work From Home (WFH). Necessity has accomplished what technology alone could not: force legal professionals to work from home, and legal organizations to operate virtually. By the time we can return to the office, many may not want to. Or maybe not every day.
I laid out the logic for lawyers working from home two or three days per week in my 2004 article The Future Law Office: Going Virtual (Law Practice Magazine, Jan/Feb 2004). The reasons then remain true today: physical proximity never guarantees appropriate collaboration. Upon returning to offices, law firm management should be more intentional about WFH and collaboration. Management should encourage teams and practices to schedule time in the office to collaborate in person but otherwise allow WFH. That would give legal professionals more flexibility and better work-life balance. And it would enable real estate savings over time via hoteling.
Management should also encourage better virtual collaboration with tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. I know lawyers hate the idea of checking more than email. “If it’s not in my inbox, I won’t see it.” That’s a challenge but perhaps now is exactly the right time to try. After all, look at how many have suddenly adopted and adapted to videoconferences.
More Cloud. Many large law firms have migrated systems to the cloud. I imagine that after this crisis, the cloud will appear even more attractive. It simplifies managing infrastructure and has business continuity built in. (See for example One Business Winner Amid Coronavirus Lockdowns: the Cloud, Wall Street Journal, 27 March 2020.) Security concerns will linger but I suspect the crisis will tip the balance to enable even more migration.
More Remote Document Review. Litigation and investigations have long employed armies of contract lawyers to review documents for responsiveness and privilege. Working conditions for these lawyers have long been awful: crammed in small spaces, often in basements, with stern taskmasters. In many jurisdictions, assembling such teams now break local social distancing rules. The technology exists for secure, remote document review. Though supervision and collaboration may be harder working remotely, it does taps a much broader labor pool, which is a benefit. Will clients and law firms insist on returning to the status quo ante? (See For the legal technology world, a “maybe” question becomes an “urgent” question: how to do you evaluate remote eDiscovery services?).
Better Deal Management. Deal management platforms emerged in the last few years. This product class helps transaction lawyers manage deals from end to end: drafting, collaborating, editing, managing, gathering signature pages, and e-signatures. Aside from the usual inertia challenges, I’ve heard that one firm does not want to be on another’s platform, or that not all the parties to the deal want to use it. Smart clients doing deals will cause all parties and advisors to agree to use a single platform.
Chatbots for Concierge Service. Law firm staff, especially secretaries, answer many “how do I ….” questions. Replicating this remotely strikes me as cumbersome. Chatbots may be the answer. Several firms have successfully tested or rolled out chatbots. Smart law firms will consider building chatbots to answer these questions. We might need small teams – secretarial, finance, IT, and marketing represented – to serve as the backend not only to answer questions, but to help build the answer bank. The goal is not necessarily answering the question in the first instance. Rather, it is to get the inquiry to the right person. Chatbots seem ideally suited, even in the office but especially on a remote basis.
More Defined Workflows. Many support and even law practice tasks would benefit from formally specified workflows, ideally reengineered with process improvement. I don’t see many organizations building workflows in the short term, but if the lock down lasts a long time or many continue to work from home, then smart firms would consider building workflows to support both administrative and law practice tasks. Over time, chatbots could trigger workflows (either within the chatbot or in a dedicated workflow application).
None of these changes strike me as particularly radical. I would love to hear if anyone sees radical change emerging – and what it might be.
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