It’s fair to say the recent months have been torrid for the legal sector. Judges, law firms, barristers’ chambers and solicitors all had no option but to work from home. It led to an enormous backlog of cases across the country, putting courts under crippling pressure.
In September, a crown court judge accused the government of under-funding the criminal justice system amid this backlog and warned that he cannot repeatedly order defendants to remain behind bars if the justice system is failing to bring them to trial.
During that same month, the Ministry of Justice published figures that revealed employment tribunals are facing a rising backlog of cases – all as a result of the spike in people challenging decisions about their jobs due to the pandemic. In fact, cases had increased every week since the start of lockdown at the beginning of March.
Things are therefore looking bleak. But, with a vaccine now a reality, the legal industry can see a return to some normality and get cases back on track next year. The big question is: do judges, law firms, barristers’ chambers and solicitors actually want to go back to the way they were working before?
In some respects, yes. We are not going to see the death of the courtroom anytime soon. However, because of the nature of home working, legal professionals have come to realise that much of their work does not need to be conducted within expensive offices. Some have even seen the obligation to move to technology as cathartic. These are the same professionals that were once resistant to change, old fashioned and fearful of technology.
Now, their reliance on technology is greater than ever. They have been forced to invest in a technology infrastructure that, until the pandemic, had seen little investment because people had always gravitated to the office environment. As Covid-19 restrictions begin to lift, we will start to see legal firms question whether they really need a large, central office with lots of fee earners. They will perhaps instead see the office as a cost rather than an asset, which means we could see lots of downsizing and blended ways of working over the coming months.
What the reimagined office will look like will vary by firm but, broadly speaking, we will see a move from mobile working to distributed working. Legal teams will be doing their day-to-day jobs from the office, home, courts and even on the train, allowing them to give their customers a greater level of flexibility. Meetings can be face-to-face, on-site or virtual. This way of working is largely thanks to the Cloud and collaboration technologies that enable them to access documents, record their time and much more from any device – anywhere.
In addition, we will see technology’s role in transforming the whole judicial cycle come to the fore. We have already seen that courts can do virtual hearings, with more and more creating digital bundles rather than printing bundles of paper. The impact of moving away from paper is huge, both from a cost and efficiency perspective. It facilitates greater collaboration between law firms and courts, which in turn enables them to consider their environmental impact – an area of increasing importance as the sector has been lagging behind when it comes to monitoring and disclosing their own environmental improvement agenda.
Digitising the legal process not only benefits law firms but, crucially, improves customer engagement too. We are seeing the introduction of client portals, digital signatures and collaboration tools, for example, which moves firms away from providing their customers with a simple functional experience to a personalised and efficient experience. What’s more, they are collaborating with customers on legal documents in a more secure way, leaving less room for human error such as misplacing confidential physical documents. Also, of equal importance is a central source of management information to ensure the smooth and efficient running of their business from remote locations. Quite simply, technology is enabling them to operate more like a B2C business and even learn new skills.
Of course, there are some forward-thinking law firms that had been taking this digital approach even before Covid-19 took hold. But they are in the minority and only now are we starting to see a real step change. After the initial shock at the end of March, the rest of the industry – traditionally stuck in its own ways – is realising that the old ways don’t work anymore. And, in fact, they quite like the new ways of working too.
Granted, the industry will still face challenges in 2021. It’s inevitable that some firms will continue to have cash flow issues, but it’s the lessons learned about technology that will enable them to see where efficiencies start and stop. They will use digital tools to help them get better at time tracking and increase the number of billable hours, as well as use platforms that will spot opportunities for them to generate more profit.
2021 will be the year of change for the legal sector which, in 2020, has seen five years’ worth of digitisation happen in just nine months. Judges, law firms, barristers’ chambers and solicitors are no longer holding onto the past and instead putting technology firmly at the heart of their future. Could we see the top 100 law firms say goodbye to swanky offices? Perhaps. Will we see the industry say goodbye to the old fashioned ways of working? Most definitely.
What has been proven in recent months is that working from home is no less efficient than working in the office and, arguably, there are cost savings to be made and a competitive advantage to be had. Indeed, necessity has catapulted firms from their cosy, traditional premises and people are now living a real-time, real life demonstration of how a legal firm can function, and function well, without a physical central hub.
Doug Hargrove is managing director education and legal at software company Advanced