Future Proofing: Return to Normal or

Future Proofing: Return to Normal or

At the most basic level, lawyers help clients by giving them advice on their legal problems. That can be a solo or small firm lawyer advising a client on a domestic matter, a big firm lawyer giving advice to representatives of a corporate client or an in-house lawyer giving advice on an operational matter to their client—their employer. Delivering services in a client-centric manner is a large part of future proofing. As we emerge from the pandemic, how do we keep our clients’ interests central in our minds?

When we look at lawyers in different practice areas, at different sizes of firms, and in different locations in the United States and Canada, both of us were struck by the wide differences we are seeing in how lawyers and firms are changing and adapting to providing legal services and operating in the post-pandemic environment. What was once a rather universal delivery model now has multiple variations.

While some firms have embraced the pandemic-driven changes they made, others seem to be returning to what was the pre-pandemic normal. And when it comes to future proofing, many seem to have reduced those efforts or put them on hold. Of course, your experience will depend on your own specific circumstance, but we are seeing some interesting patterns and—we think—contradictions. This is especially the case when you ask clients what they now prefer or expect.

As we have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us have started attending more in-person events, whether they be with family and friends, or for work purposes. Clients are coming out of their shells too, and most clients don’t seem concerned about coming into the office to meet with their lawyer. But many lawyers still seem reluctant to attend in-person conferences, and many lawyers—and law firm staff too—want to continue working from home. While virtual meetings can be more convenient and efficient and keep legal fees down, the preference and willingness of clients to meet in person shouldn’t be ignored, nor should you ignore the benefits of better and more fulsome communications with clients. In Ontario we have seen more malpractice claims due to miscommunications between lawyers and their clients and staff. We think this is a direct result of moving to virtual interactions with clients and between lawyers and their staff.

The pandemic caused many courts and tribunals to skip ahead decades or more on the technology front. Virtually overnight, judges and lawyers moved almost exclusively to conducting virtual hearings, leaving our comfort zone in courtrooms that haven’t changed much in a century or more. While some courts now have only Band-Aid technology solutions in place, and many of us are still learning the basic skills and etiquette of virtual hearings and technology, there is no doubt that virtual hearings are here to stay.

But even though courts and tribunals are now reopened for business, most hearings continue to be only virtual. We’re wondering if this is for health and safety reasons or convenience. A quick survey of lawyers shows most believe the decision of the courts to remain virtual is for the latter. In fact, most lawyers we’ve talked to prefer the convenience of virtual hearings, except for extended hearings and trials, both of which make sense from the client point of view as well.

Many firms are returning to pre-pandemic behavior by going back to the office full time, but with health precautions for staff and clients. It seems the availability of technology, especially collaboration software and videoconferencing, doesn’t alter the desire to work from the office. Yet we are hearing from others they are taking advantage of the new normal and are continuing to emphasize their virtual services to clients with great success.

Business is brisk in many areas of practice. Clients are looking for help on legal matters whether delayed by the pandemic or increased because of the pandemic (e.g., divorce). We talked to many firms that are so busy with work they are expanding their roster of lawyers and increasing their staff. One firm of 10 litigators added three new laterals in three months to handle their growing client base. The good news is that many of these firms have some office space available for those new employees due to flexible remote work schedules. But we are hearing that sharing desks or workstations and common workspaces like washrooms and cafeterias is a concern. Increased cleaning, physical distancing and other extra health precautions can adequately address these concerns.

There has been much discussion about the Great Resignation. It is perhaps happening in some locations and for some segments of the profession, but it’s not happening everywhere. Some of the people who are resigning are retiring (and probably were planning or thinking about doing so before the pandemic but held on because they could work from home). But more importantly, we think you should be looking at both sides of the equation. Remember, many of the people who are resigning are going to another job. Should we be calling it the “Great Career Migration” instead?

While working at home, evidently many people decided they wanted something more or different from their job. On the “more” front it could be a salary increase. The bigger firms are enticing lawyers with huge salaries and signing bonuses. There is a cascade effect as firms in each successive tier below the biggest firms seek to replace the people they lost. On the “something different” front it could be a job with less pressure (and most likely a lower salary), one that is located closer to home, one in a different area of practice or even a new career, or a combination of more than one of these factors.

Thus, hiring will remain more challenging as it may take longer to find experienced people, but they are out there, especially for those firms that will hire remote employees. A good number of paralegals are switching from big firms to smaller ones that offer flexibility in working from home. And with a tight labor market comes increases in compensation for employees. New hires are requesting substantial starting salaries and increased remote work flexibility. Compensation to retain valuable existing employees (and avoid the costs of replacing them) is also headed north.

Despite a fairly robust economy, we are not hearing about increases in hourly rates or flat fees. It would seem that with increased costs of employee compensation that hourly rates would increase too, but at the time of writing this, we’ve not seen that. And with the increased efficiencies from virtual technologies, perhaps more firms can move to fixed or flat fees for some types of work or for work on specific stages of a matter.

It is easy to slip into old behaviors, especially when you are busy trying to keep up with the day-to-day demands of client matters. Before you get too comfortable, take time to step back and consider the positive changes you made to adapt to the pandemic. What have been the benefits for clients, your staff and firm operations? How much harder will it be to catch up later if the old normal is not the new normal? Consider this new normal and work with clients and staff to incorporate these positive changes into the tried-and-true ways you practiced before the pandemic.

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