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7 Ways The Pandemic Will Forever Change Law Practice

As painful as this crisis has been for so many, many of the changes that will emerge out of it will be for the betterment of the legal system.

We are all experiencing the immediate impact of the Coronavirus crisis on our professional lives and careers. But how will this crisis impact the legal profession over the longer term? Will we eventually return to normal?

I think not; many of the adaptations we’ve made here in the moment are already setting in motion changes that will permanently reconfigure the legal landscape.  Many of the changes that will emerge out of it will be for the betterment of the legal system and those it is intended to serve.

Here are seven ways I believe the legal system will fundamentally and permanently change as the result of this crisis.

1. Lawyers will no longer see technology as something to be feared.

In a matter of a month, any lawyers who still harbored fears of technology have of necessity come to see it as a lifeline to the survival of their practices and their continuing ability to serve their clients. Going forward, that will fundamentally reshape the legal profession’s use and adoption of technology.

2. Lawyers will no longer see innovation as a threat to the ‘guild.’

I Like a game of whack-a-mole, wherever experiments in alternative forms of legal services delivery popped up, the organized bar would be at the ready to pound them down.  The American Bar Association, once seen as a bastion of protectionism, has in recent years become an advocate for innovation, as recently as February calling for states to consider regulatory reforms and legal services innovations.

But the pandemic has dramatized, in ways no studies or committees ever could, the fundamental shortcomings of the legal system as it was. A rigidly structured guild system of courts and services delivery, designed by lawyers for lawyers as their exclusive domain, is not up to meeting the challenges of a world that demands agility and flexibility in services delivery.

3. Regulatory reform will accelerate.

The Utah Supreme Court put out for public comment a proposed set of the most-sweeping regulatory reforms in a generation. While the process that led to these proposals was underway well before the crisis, the court explicitly acknowledged in announcing them, “The current COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of finding new, affordable, and high-quality innovations as quickly as possible.”

As Utah is already doing, other states will have no choice but to follow. The traditionally strict rules on who can deliver legal services and by what means will of necessity be eased to meet demand of crisis proportions. Although born out of crisis, those reforms will ultimately, over the long term, help close the justice gap in this country.

4. Courts will accelerate innovation and online services.

For years, in part because of the access-to-justice crisis and the growing numbers of self-represented litigants, courts have been overwhelmed by demand and underfunded to deal with it. Consumed with the struggle to keep up with this demand, they were unable to formulate the innovations that would help them meet it.

Quite possibly the most significant change in the legal system to come out of the Coronavirus crisis will be a fundamental rethinking and restructuring of the courts. Susskind’s book brilliantly poses the core question: “Is a court a service or a place?”

As we find ourselves in a moment when that place can no longer function, the need for the service does not abate. As courts adapt for the short term, they will inevitably change for the long term.

5. More legal services will be delivered remotely and online.

Many in the legal profession are learning for the first time what it means to deliver legal services remotely. Many others have been doing it to one extent or another for years. Others still are scrambling to come up with the capability.

Turns out, Zoom (or whatever is your videoconferencing app of choice) is a perfectly good way to meet with clients and colleagues. More to the point, in many cases, it is a superior way to meet.

Why should a business owner need to trek downtown to meet with a lawyer? Why should a low-income parent need to arrange childcare and spend bus money to get legal advice? To what extent has face-to-face lawyering been an obstacle for a rural farmer or someone homebound by a physical condition?

The fact of the matter is that legal professionals can serve more clients by meeting with them remotely, and do it at greater convenience and lower cost. Now that we all understand this, remote meetings will become more the norm and less the exception.

6. Law firms will review how they operate.

For lawyers who firms were already more technologically adept, transitioning to working from home was no biggie. In fact, in recent years, many firms –- especially larger firms — were already encouraging flexible, remote working arrangements for their partners and staffs.

The driver of this trend was not just convenience, but economics. The more a firm could reduce its footprint, the more it could save on real estate, maintenance, and overhead costs.

Now, firms and other organizations are seeing that they can go remote on a scale they never anticipated and still function.

To what extent is a firm’s physical plant essential to the services it provides? No doubt, an office provides camaraderie, collaboration, and convenience. And not everyone has a home suitable to working remotely. But there can be no doubt that law firm restructuring will be a lasting impact of this crisis.

7. Legal education will be revamped.

As Jordan Furlong put it, “The lawyer formation process is breaking down in front of us.” And he accurately, I believe, predicts that out of this crisis “will emerge a driving need … to really rethink what we’re trying to achieve: to develop competent, confidant lawyers to service clients and society.”

I am anything but an expert in legal education. But I have no doubt that, as a result of what we are going through now, legal education — like law practice and the courts — will never again look the same, nor will the Bar Exam.

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