Long-Term Impacts of COVID on the Legal Profession: Part I
Over a year after the start of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, and we still don’t have it behind us. Variants and mutations are devastatingly emerging in pockets throughout the world. Vaccines are not being administered quickly are efficiently due to manufacturing, distribution, and a disquieting rebuff by many with access.
Nevertheless, it’s fair to say (as is often repeated), “Things are opening up.” Generally, there are fewer restrictions on personal interactions. Those vaccinated feel more confident to step out. Others simply don’t give a damn. But the question for our profession (just like our health) – what are the long-term impacts or effects of COVID-19?
The legal profession, including the court systems, has always been slow to change, slow to innovate, and slow to adopt new technology.
We were slow to integrate computers into our workflow, cautious about the internet (and even fax machines), hesitant to trust voicemail, untrusting about the digital storage of documents, and tentative about the iPhone (desperately clinging to our Blackberries in the name of security). And maybe we were right. But we’ve also been slow to embrace those technological advancements that others (our clients) have come to expect and that would frankly make our life easier. COVID has accelerated some of these. But are the changes that we have adopted here to stay? Were they short-term, stop-gap, necessary workarounds, or have we been forced into the 21st Century? Or should we be?
Many managing partners and solo practitioners were looking quixotically at our overhead – our physical footprint, location, and amenities – pre-COVID with a jaundiced eye and asking themselves questions like:
Do we need this much space?
Do we need this class space?
How often do we meet with clients anymore?
How often are our attorneys here at the office?
How many staff members work flexible hours, with many elsewhere?
Technology has allowed us to step away from the office and sever the umbilical cords that kept us there. A competitive marketplace has driven us to our clients rather than them to our doors. COVID forced those who hadn’t taken the remote work plunge to do so. And it worked.
The Statistics Say Yes!
Harvard Business Review researchers studied knowledge workers in 2013 and again during the 2020 pandemic lockdown and found significant changes in how they are working. They learned that lockdown helps people focus on the tasks that really matter.
They spent 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners.
Lockdown also helped people take responsibility for our own schedules. They did 50% more activities through personal choice and half as many because someone else asked them to.
Finally, during lockdown, people viewed their work as more worthwhile. The number of tasks rated as tiresome dropped from 27% to 12%, and the number we could readily offload to others dropped from 41% to 27%.
This study and others have shown that people who want to work from home and are able to work from home are just as productive, if not more productive, doing so.
Granted, it isn’t possible nor workable for everyone. Technology has made it possible. Having documents and even software available in the cloud means that we can work from anywhere with a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection (though we still shouldn’t trust all Wi-Fi connections). Digital telephone systems have enabled us to forward office calls directly to our cellphones. We used to be able to easily give the impression that we were working from the office to clients, courts, and cohorts alike until the pandemic. Now there’s Zoom.