• Cooper Shattuck

Long-Term Impacts of COVID on the Legal Profession: Part IV


In this four-part series, we have discussed the potential long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the legal profession, the courts, practicing law, and the life of a lawyer. We also have conducted a survey of our readers to get feedback on how COVID-19 has affected them, thus far (Check out those results here). But regardless of these long-term impacts or opportunities, leveraging technology within the legal profession like many other industries, trades and professions have already done, begs the question of where to draw the line. When does technology, regardless of its capabilities, cease to provide a positive impact? What might we miss? What are we missing?


As human beings, we are complex social creatures. We value and depend on the millennia of human development to allow us to subconsciously process the mountains of data generated by in-person meetings -- from facial expressions to body language, to vocal tones – to inform our decisions on the credibility, the veracity, and the trustworthiness of what is being communicated to us, both intentionally and unintentionally. Despite our best efforts, these cannot be replaced virtually, at least not at this point.


We must appreciate the value of human interaction, face-to-face, and prioritize when we demand it based on its most likely return, especially when the resources which allow it to happen or limited, either financially or physically. There are some personal interactions that we must prioritize simply because they are that important or are that valuable. And given our inability to experience and appreciate them over the last year, their significance is even magnified.


So, what in-person interactions are most important? It depends on the person and their circumstances. But here are a few to consider.


Client Development

Client development is something that most lawyers undervalue. The value added by face-to-face interactions with current and potential clients cannot be overlooked.

Whether it’s landing a new client or reinforcing an existing relationship, in-person meetings, gatherings, social interactions, and shared meals are a natural way to build a bond of trust and comfort which is so important to a good relationship with a client. Relationships are built on shared experiences. The more that two people can share, the stronger the relationship. So, seeking and creating opportunities for face-to-face experiences is crucial to securing and maintaining the client relationship. This is equally true for referral relationships.


Mediations & Other Settlement Discussions

Mediations and other settlement discussions are also occasions occurring during a legal experience where a personal interface is important. Communications are critical to effective negotiations.

Many communications are non-verbal. When the opportunity to communicate or decipher non-verbal communications is thwarted, settlement negotiations are necessarily adversely impacted. While participation virtually is certainly better than no participation, it isn’t as beneficial as being there. So, virtual attendance at mediation and settlement discussions may allow for those negotiations which would otherwise not occur, but the value added by being physically present should not be overlooked.


Courtroom

We have learned that the fact-finding role of courts, whether juried or non-juried, is hampered when the witnesses are not physically present or their facial features and other physical attributes are obscured or filtered.

Determining the credibility and veracity of witnesses is a critical element in our fact-finding process and thus integral to the judicial process. The exceptions to a fact-finder’s ability to see and hear witnesses live and in-person should be few and far between. Thus, when preparing for those trial presentations, assessing a witness’s credibility ahead of time is essential. If the process used to do so (whether an interview or a deposition), is virtual, a true assessment cannot be assured.


While COVID-19 has probably encouraged the legal profession to adopt technologies that it should have adopted years ago, it has also reminded us of the importance of the human element of what we do. We cannot always effectively counsel clients virtually or by telephone. And we can’t adequately resolve their dispute or present their case by Zoom. We are human. And human interaction is a critical element of what we do as lawyers. But, that doesn’t mean that we cannot make use of the advances in technology to make a life a little easier.


What do you think?