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Never let a good crisis go to waste

COVID-19 may help to upend the way law is practised, says Gary Goodwin

Gary Goodwin

Never let a good crisis go to waste.
—Winston Churchill

Churchill recognized the basis of good change management. If you needed to get something done but couldn’t under normal circumstances, then a good old-fashioned crisis usually allows you to get the changes you want.

Another aspect of change management includes looking at changes on an enterprise, organizational, and finally an individual level. For the future of law, we are looking at how the education, the delivery, the institutions and the law itself will likely change after COVID-19 has rampaged across the globe. No one really knows for how long COVID-19 intends to affect the overall global socio-economic environment, but March 15, 2021 looks like a good bet. (A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but Johnson & Johnson have a promising vaccine lead with human trials starting in September and likely emergency distribution in early 2021.)

Change management includes a number of best practices you can follow, namely starting at the top, getting engagement from stakeholders, finding champions, scoring some initial wins, and issuing communications. But a sometimes forgotten component is developing a sense of urgency. And COVID-19 supplies this.

Law schools, for example, were already at the forefront of change; they have been slowly incorporating online classes for years. The American Bar Association guidelines released in February indicate that over 150 law schools have moved to an online course format. This should have the added benefit of reducing costs and overall debt load of students.

 Whether the online format is as good or better than the traditional classroom format that most lawyers are familiar with remains to be seen; but most learning may have taken place when you were reading on your own in any event. To confirm which format is better, a multifactor comparison in a peer-reviewed journal with replicated examples would be required to show the difference between online and traditional schools. Which is a long, polite way of saying it will probably never be confirmed.

The online learning model fits in well with the Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education’s Practice Readiness Education Program (CPLED PREP). PREP, which will launch this June, is a nine-month program with four phases involving interactions, transactions and simulations. This is a new way of promoting other forms of competencies, such as professional ethics and practice management, which would nicely compliment an online law school. The old-fashioned articles may be the next thing to go. Up online, I mean.

We have all likely been experiencing this more cloud-based style of law firm. Most of us have had experience working remotely. I volunteered to give up my office almost a year and half ago. There may have been a day and a half of regret right at the beginning, but it has been smooth sailing since then.

This time in their remote offices has given lawyers ample experience in using the full capability of the digital platforms that their IT departments have (ideally) been working on for the past few years. These capabilities would have included video conferencing not only with staff but with clients as well. Lawyers have also had the opportunity to learn all about the security protocols that IT has been talking about in order to access secure documents from any location.

Necessity being the gender-neutral parent of invention, our organization has seen how Microsoft Teams teleconferencing has been a tremendous way to view and speak with members of one’s team. Documents for a team meeting are easily loaded and located. Chats can be posted and followed as comments are collected.

After a couple of weeks of working in this manner you can see how a law firm might transition to become virtual. Meeting with clients could be conducted over video conferencing right from the start as clients accessed the law firm’s web site.

It is even easier to see how numerous new firms could come into existence as virtual right from the start. Once again, CPLED PREP uses the format of a virtual law firm for students, where they meet clients online and all the firm lawyers and staff operate remotely.

This training allows new lawyers to see how a law firm would operate as it works on various files. Newly licensed lawyers would see the immediate benefit in this and may no longer be driven to join a traditional law firm. Some traditional leverage may soon be lost.

The virtual firm becomes even more enabled by the Federation of Ontario Law Associations guidance of March 20 on how to close real estate transactions remotely. Video confirmation of document signing can be acceptable. At least on a temporary basis.

The U.S. Supreme Court, for the first time since the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, has suspended oral hearings. Courts in Canada have begun moving various functions online. No doubt the need to observe witnesses’ demeanors in person will continue for some time, though.

Probably the greatest change to the legal profession will be the clients. These past few weeks have enabled clients, and people in general, to try new things. All of the professions have reached out and demonstrated that they are prepared to meet with clients in a virtual manner. Using Zoom to set up a meeting with one’s lawyer or accountant no longer seems awkward, and the savings in time and cost has greatly increased the value proposition of many professionals. Client expectations will evolve over a very short time.

We should note that clients do not necessarily request professional advice to be delivered in a new fashion. But if they see it happening elsewhere, they are likely to drift to where they can take similar quality advice better and faster.

The type of legal advice provided has changed greatly over this present and urgent timeframe. A good portion of lawyers appear to be operating on a just-in-time provision of legal services. COVID-19 has become so topical so quickly, and the demand for answers so immediate, that there has been an incredible amount of free legal advice provided on blogs and other sites. This no longer seems like the standard identification of legal risks and the follow-up of ‘please come see our firm,’ but rather, ‘you can see some very concrete advice on how to deal with various COVID-19 related legal issues.’

All of this has also raised clients’ expectations, and in the future they will want to see practical and immediate legal solutions to their problems.

But as Yogi Berra said, “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

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