This is my sixth post about law firms in the Coronavirus Crisis.

As governments around the US and the world begin to ease restrictions on social interaction, law firms, like all other business entities, are planning for “re-entry.” 

When law firms return from the compelled remote working experience, will they return to business as usual?  Will the fundamental operating models be the same as before?  Or will there be a “new normal”?  These are very real, and very important questions all law firm leaders need to answer.

History suggests that law firms revert to past practice once a crisis passes.  It is what they did after the financial crisis of 2008.  It is in their nature, they are trained to rely on precedent, and the old ways of working produce reliable results. 

I believe this time will be different for two fundamental reasons.  

Two Reasons the New Normal Will be Different

          The Market Was Demanding Change Before the Crisis

First, the market had expressed a genuine imperative for change before the crisis.  

Clients were demanding that service be delivered better, faster, and less expensively.  Process design and technology made these improvements possible.  Nearly every firm recognized the need to innovate, spawning innovation officers and initiatives, but meaningful change was modest, at best. 

Clients responded by “voting with their feet,” creating ever larger in-house law departments and relying more on alternative legal service providers.  The total market share of the AmLaw 100 was declining, even as the law firms paid themselves record income.  

This was a real issue pre-crisis.

Everyone Learned How Well New Models Work During the Crisis

Second, the suddenly altered model imposed by the crisis taught everyone that new models really can work.  In many cases just as well as the old models, and in some cases better.  Law firms and their people learned a lot from the crisis.

The lessons were enabled by remote working, but they extend well beyond WFH.  We learned how well the technology works,  how powerful our data is,  how self reliant our people can be, and much more.  Among the most common themes I hear from law firm leaders is the impact the crisis has had on people who previously were doubters, cynics, or downright opponents of technology solutions; Zoom and other tools persuaded them that, indeed, technology isn’t just for purchasing on Amazon or looking things up on Google, it can permit lawyers to do what they do in a superior way.

Importantly, the advantages of the remote model were not limited to outputs.  It included the process and people’s personal experiences.  Nearly everyone with whom I have spoken reports, for example,  an improvement in collaboration and teamwork, and greater job satisfaction.  While there were inconveniences, people liked the lack of commute and the flexibility that accompanied remote working.  

Remote working made real and personal for everyone how modern tools can improve the way legal services are provided.  As we move forward I believe the service provider side of the market will put these lessons to work to deliver the change the market is demanding.

Three Ways the New Normal Will Be Different

          Technology Will Become the New Hub of Law Firms

As long as I have been a lawyer, everything orbited around the “office” in which the firm was housed.  That suite of rooms, that building, was the hub of all activity.  As a new associate fresh out of law school, that is where you showed up to begin your career.  That is where everyone did most of their work. That is where nearly all important meetings occurred, including planning, strategizing, and mentoring.  So much of one’s career was about where one worked.

Then came the pandemic, and everyone was suddenly working from wherever they were.  I think we all had trepidation about what would happen.  How will people coordinate?  How will the team leaders lead and manage?  How would quality and timeliness be assured?  

And then, voilà, it all worked.  All of it.  People showed themselves to be resilient and self sufficient.  And the technology, most prominently video conferencing, but really all the information technology, enabled the work to proceed just as well as it otherwise would have.

It didn’t just work adequately, in some ways it worked better.  I have heard enough specific examples to draw some important conclusions.  People accessed the information they needed, accessed the people with whom they needed to confer, and otherwise drew on firm resources seamlessly.  One example that was particularly meaningful to me was this:  a leader in a large multinational firm reported that when partners were choosing lawyers for an assignment, they now drew on all firm resources to find the optimal person, rather than drawing on the convenient person down the hall.

The significance of the remote working experience was summed up by one law firm leader this way:  “work is about what we do, not where we do it.”  She is right.  And the follow on implications will, I believe, be profound.  

Progressively from here, the hub of one’s career will be the information one needs and the technology by which one gets it.  The building will no longer be the center.

          Firms Will Operate More Flexibly

Firms learned during the crisis that rigid schedules are not necessary to successful completion of the work.  Once people were all working from home, they naturally did the work in a way that both fit to what was necessary to get it done, and what fit into their lives.  The protocol  of everyone showing up at the building at 9:00 AM (or any other scheduled time) disappeared.  Everything worked just fine.  And people were happier in their work. 

In the new normal, I think it is virtually certain that law firms will be much more flexible about how they get the work done.  Let’s start with hours of work: why would firms go back to prescribed hours of operation for everyone?  I don’t think they will.

In turn, why require all professionals to be in the office Monday through Friday? Why require them all to be “full time?” I don’t think they will.

Will firms need dedicated offices for each lawyer?  Will they need as much space as they currently lease?  Will so much of their space need to be in the city centers?  And on it will go.

All in, firms will be much more flexible about how they assemble and deploy resources. This change will be a game changing gateway to modernization.  It will naturally lead to other changes across the spectrum of legal service delivery.

The Pace of Technology Adoption Will Accelerate

Lawyers’ experience in the Coronavirus Crisis appears to have caused a psychological shift in the way they see technology.  As described earlier, even the most cynical “nay-sayers” have been won over.  I have heard countless anecdotes from law firm leaders like this: “you always told me this would work, and you were right!”  As one leader said, the best way to evangelize technology is to help someone solve a problem with it.  The WFH experience presented a high stakes, anxiety-filled problem, and technology saved the day. 

I believe lawyers will come out of this experience more ready to adopt technology solutions.  If I am right, this, too, will be a game changing gateway.  The technology adoption challenge has been at the center of law’s failure to modernize.  If lawyers now become more ready for it, the door opens to innovation that will touch virtually every facet of legal service delivery.

Now Is the Time to Think Seriously About How the New Normal Will Be Different

It is incumbent on each law firm leader to think ahead now about the issues raised in this post.  What new normal will emerge after the extraordinary experience we are going through?  And what does it mean for your firm?

I have no doubt that this moment offers all firms an enormous opportunity to strengthen themselves, for the benefit of all who depend on them.