COVID has forced lawyers to improve. Let’s not let those lessons go to waste
The last year has forced law firms to reflect on their business survival in a highly stressful environment. The pandemic did not change the work lawyers do, nor has it changed the clients we serve. It did not put a stop to the need for legal services. Clients could not delay many matters for long, and new issues, such as COVID-19-related employment matters, caused increased demand. People were also clearly still buying and selling homes. Yet, how we traditionally provided services was handcuffed.
While the need for legal services marched on despite the pandemic, firms from small to large altered how they delivered legal services.
Many of us incorporated video-conferencing, new technologies and actual remote working into our practices for the first time. It forced us to connect with our colleagues and clients, people we were used to seeing daily, in a 21st-century way. While the legal community is notoriously slow to change, we proved, over the last year, that we can change, innovate and embrace new ways of doing things and do so quickly.
The struggle to adapt
Adapting to pandemic law practice has been a multi-faceted struggle. Even for the most technologically nimble, tools such as video-conferencing with clients and courts took time to get used to. While many lawyers have embraced new tools and methods, a significant number of lawyers have not. For many older lawyers in smaller firms and rural areas, adapting to new technologies has been particularly difficult.
Many of us know lawyers who have flat out ignored health guidelines and stay-at-home orders, with excuses such as “I can’t work remotely,” “I’m a paper person,” “I’m not good with computers,” and “We need to meet clients, so we need to be in the office.” While some of this is understandable, the competence required by our professional rules of conduct includes technological competence. Excuses permitting one to do things as they have always been done became unacceptable in a pandemic world. All lawyers have had to gain new technological competencies throughout the pandemic.
While there have been technological challenges, the pressure on human resources may have been even more severe. The mental health toll from ongoing lockdown orders and never-ending states of emergency have been stressful for all. The inability to physically interact with others, time off for pandemic-related reasons and stressors at home have resulted in fatigue and burnout. Addressing this during the pandemic has not been easy. People have not been able to get away, and even with time off, the background noise of the pandemic has remained front and centre.
Law firms have been creative in strategizing a post-pandemic existence. By the lack of physical interaction, some have devoted more energy to social media presence. Others have ramped up marketing and virtual campaigns to prepare for an anticipated surge in business. And others have done nothing and have been just fine relying on reputational strength.
Some firms considered and are considering diversifying service offerings. But is this simply a tactic to hopefully increase revenue, or is there a genuine interest in practising in new areas? Legal services are client-centred. Sometimes, we forget that and fixate on cash flow, billable hours and other numbers. To that end, we chase new practice areas to increase numbers to the detriment of current practice areas.
Rather than jumping into diversifying practice areas, consider opportunities within current areas to increase services and revenue. These opportunities could be as simple as improving your marketing and intake strategy, investing in enhancing the client experience and making payment easier.
While focusing on business development post-pandemic is essential, we must not forget to address our staff and our own needs. A post-pandemic strategy should address the burnout and mental health toll the pandemic has taken.
The pandemic has forced the legal community to find new and safe ways to deliver services. It has pushed law firms outside their comfort zones, and our profession is all the better for it. It has been a teaching moment, the lessons of which all lawyers should not forget in the post-pandemic world.