Prior to COVID-19, the legal industry in particular was a very different place. Of course, when the pandemic hit, all sorts of pundits offered dire predictions about how the legal industry would (or would not) be able to cope with isolation-based operations.
Some of those predictions were right. Others…not so much.
We thought it would be interesting to take a look back at some of those early predictions — particularly those that we all got very wrong — and to reflect on some of the good things that came from this very bad situation.
Do you remember any of these big predictions?
Prediction #1: Our courts won’t be able to deliver justice.
One of the earliest and most significant fears to arise within the legal industry was how our court systems would function in a world that required people to stay away from one another.
The early response to the pandemic was for courts to shut down. Doors closed and cases languished.
As virtual court proceedings came online, though, industry experts were highly critical of digital justice. It was thought that online proceedings would prevent a large segment of the population from being able to access legal services.
To their credit, both state and federal legal systems rose to the challenge.
Today, in fact, some legal experts are referring to the virtual courtroom as a “hallmark of justice.” Rather than limiting access to the court process, virtual hearings and trials are hailed as expanders of justice.
Virtual courtrooms are now seen to be easier to navigate for working people, single parents, and those without reliable transportation.
Sometimes, it’s good to be wrong. This is one of those times.
Prediction #2: Nothing will get done if legal professionals work from home.
If you worked at almost any law firm prior to the pandemic, you know that the old-guard lawyers never wanted to embrace remote work for any reason. Working from home due to illness, other responsibilities, or transportation issues was regarded as a privilege reserved for the most senior employees on only the rarest of occasions.
There was a popular belief that once employees started working from home, productivity would decrease, deadlines would be missed, and chaos would reign.
But that’s not what happened in the legal industry, was it?
To the contrary, legal work continued to get done, and it apparently got done quite well.
In fact, by late 2022, when most pandemic-based isolation mandates were far behind us, 87% of lawyers reported their workplaces still allowed them to work from home. Moreover, over two-thirds of those lawyers were allowed to work remotely 100% of the time.
If the pandemic taught us anything, it was that working from home just makes sense.
Think of the time saved from things like getting ready for work, commuting, or even participating in those obligatory water-cooler chats around the office. All of those things took time away from the almighty billable hour.
Now, lawyers and other legal professionals can more easily meet their billable hour requirements without spending 75 hours per week away from home.
The remote work revolution occasioned by the pandemic is a true win-win for everyone.
Prediction #3: Clients won’t like meeting remotely.
Prior to the pandemic, the well-appointed, modern law firm office with its large conference rooms, endless pitchers of ice water, and penthouse views were thought to be necessary to attracting and retaining top clients.
Many attorneys would have never dreamed of asking a client to participate in a video conference or to sign important legal documents electronically. They certainly never would have dreamed of allowing a client to see them operating from their home office via a cell phone.
Yet, when the pandemic prevented us all from gathering, clients took to remote legal representation quite well.
In fact, many seemed to like the time savings that resulted from their virtual relationships with their attorneys. Just like everyone else, clients were relieved to skip the commute and the formalities that came with in-person legal services.
Moreover, the pandemic forced many law firms to modernize day-to-day services for clients.
Some posted more informational blogs on their websites so clients could easily find answers to common questions. Others modernized bill paying services. Still others provided links to various legal resources so clients could participate in more self-help services.
All of this ended up forging new and positive relationships between attorneys and their clients.
According to recent surveys, a large percentage of today’s legal clients actually prefer virtual meetings with their lawyers. Nobody would have guessed it prior to March 2020.
Prediction #4: Remote work will reduce the spirit of teamwork within law firms.
As the pandemic continued to run its course, one of the biggest fears in workplaces and universities alike was that the lack of face-to-face interaction among peers would destroy the teamwork needed for groups to achieve their goals.
This was a particularly grave concern within law firms where teams of legal professionals — especially within litigation practices — often operate like sports teams. Each member has their own role in ushering the team to victory. Nonetheless, all members must operate effectively together.
Many feared remote work practices would completely disrupt this team mentality.
What happened instead, however, was that legal professionals began to collaborate more effectively than ever.
This was particularly true within firms that have multiple offices. Once video conferences became the “new normal,” co-workers from different locations found that interacting with each other was now as easy as it had always been to collaborate with people from their home office.
In other words, remote working leveled the playing field, and suddenly everyone came to feel like a part of a much bigger and stronger team.
Looking back to look forward
It’s easy in early 2023 to talk about the COVID-19 pandemic like it’s a distant memory.
It’s really not though, is it?
Law firms, like other workplaces, continue to evolve and grow to meet what we now know is an uncertain future. We just hope that as pundits and professionals continue trying to predict the future, they also continue to get things as “positively wrong” as they did with the factors discussed above.
As we face news of massive layoffs in the legal industry, fears over an economic downturn, and other dire predictions about our future, remember that these types of concerns don’t always turn out the way we expect.
And that’s a really good thing.