In the 2010s, before the pandemic struck, a capacity to provide legal services remotely was seen as somewhat exotic and heralding the arrival of new entity, the ‘virtual lawyer’. ‘”Virtual law firms” are redefining how legal practices operate and the services they offer,’ announced publishers Wolters Kluwer in a blog published in a pre-Covid January 2019. Most access to justice providers, like most legal practice, coped remarkably well with enforced remote working imposed at speed in response to the virus and the first lockdowns.
The key elements of the virtual law firm were well established before the pandemic struck – let’s say in March 2020. The previous summer, the American Bar Association was recounting a series of non-pandemic reasons for going virtual: ’Enhanced technology, high office rent, traffic and long commute times, work/life blend and a desire to better serve clients have resulted in the creation of a new way to practice law: the virtual law firm.’
Many institutions were well into digital transformation programmes that began in ignorance of the pandemic to come. Back in 2013, the US Legal Services Corporation published a report that made a number of recommendations ‘to broaden and improve civil legal assistance through an integrated service-delivery system that brings the knowledge and wisdom of legal experts to the public through computers and mobile devices.’ In 2016, the Legal Education Foundation announced support by way of a large grant for ‘a programme to transform the Digital infrastructure of Law Centres nationally.’ In 2017, Citizens Advice in England and Wales launched a ‘Future of Advice programme’ which included the technology ambition of investing in ‘best-in-class platforms to support a seamless customer journey, make our services more accessible and free up adviser time to help more people. And in 2018, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service announced ‘an ambitious programme of court reform, which aims to bring new technology and modern ways of working to the way justice is administered.’
It might be worth identifying at this point what a commercial provider has to say about the requirements for remote working. This is from Clio, a Canadian company focusing on small and medium sized legal businesses. Its first version was published in March last year – right as the pandemic struck. These were the elements that access to justice organisations had to pull together at speed last Spring – according to Clio. They needed:
- a business plan;
- a virtual office or offices;
- thought through administrative workflows;
- a strong internal culture;
- to plan for an exceptional virtual client experience – for access to justice organisations this would include web-based materials;
- the following software – cloud-based practice management: ‘With cloud-based practice management software like Clio Manage, you can access, share, and collaborate on important case details from anywhere. Additionally, features like the Firm Dashboard help your firm track productivity, and you can see how individuals in the firm are performing as well’; cloud-based document storage; internal communication software; VoIP phone provider; cloud-based client relationship management software; a secure client portal; and virtual receptionist services; online payment services (not essential for most not for profits).
Organisations and institutions began at different places in relation to this list and built up the required package of tools at varying speeds. Every organisation has a story to tell of how they adapted at speed. There were endless teething problems. The director of Ontario’s largest community legal clinic in Hamilton reported a manager still had to go into the office to pick up mail. Clinics did not have enough licences to support universal use of the necessary software. Clinic leader Lenny Abramowicz reported in April that ‘some of the software remains slow, particularly at busy times. There is often a measurable delay before you can see what you are typing.’ As a result, ’”Many clinic staff outside of Toronto are actually going into the office because it is so difficult to use.”’ – which rather negated the point. A number of organisations felt that they had to shift from Skype, often to Zoom for a service on which they could depend.
Providers that relied on pro bono assistance from practising lawyers and/or the help of students faced additional difficulties. This is Tia Matt, responsible for Exeter University’s law clinic: ‘“We were due to occupy premises owned by the University in the main station in Exeter, St David’s, earlier this year just when Covid 19 struck. They were renovating a former shop for us. It is a fantastic location, very central. But, when the pandemic arrived in March, the campus closed and the students largely went home. We had to tell our clients that we were pausing. We could not even collect our mail – which comes through the university … We paused completely for about 10 days. Our students went all over the world. Some were put into quarantine: some had no communication. We made a huge effort to wrap up our caseload. We took stock of where everyone was – in which countries and time zones. We partner students to work on cases. We had to work out where they both were …We recognised that there might be delays in communication between students. We let our students know that we, as supervisors, could take over if necessary. We didn’t want them to feel responsible if they were sick or unavailable … We had a lot of talk with the university about how we could operate. We needed extra hands on deck for supervision. The university funded us to hire a lawyer to help through the summer.’ On pro bono, LawWorks in England and Wales provided guidance on how virtual pro bono volunteering could be encouraged and supported during the pandemic. In the US, Pro Bono Net did the same.
Some organisations were actively well prepared for enforced remote working. They had digitalised not only their internal systems but their external user-facing ones. JusticeConnect’s Kate Fazio reported in March 2020 ‘Our online intake and referral tool, our cloud-based case management system, VOIP phone service and our Pro Bono Portal matter distribution system are helping to support service continuity with a remote workforce. While ensuring continuity of existing services, we are preparing specific, tailored services that respond to emerging issues. We have this week launched a new online legal clinic – Justice Connect Answers. The platform aims to provide a space for people to ask discrete legal questions and receive quick, confidential legal answers from our pro bono network. We have used the same base code (Free Legal Answers) that Law Works and various US organisations have used to set up a similar clinic, provided generously by Baker Donelson. We have also released a new self-help resources hub for individuals, with resources covering employment law issues, government exercise of emergency powers, court closures and a range of resources for tenants.’
This takes us forward to the key question. The pandemic encouraged a redefinition of the working arrangements under which services are provided. Clinic, firms, law centres, legal aid and service providers around the world have done amazing things to keep their organisations running. But it seems inherently unlikely that this effort is not beginning to affect, as Ms Fazio reported, new ‘specific, tailored services that respond to emerging issues.’ not just by subject matter but also by delivery mechanism. This is to be pursued in subsequent posts but let’s end with three examples – all of which could trace their development back to pre-Covid times but whose time really came because of it.
First, Citizens Advice in England and Wales produced world-beating data on the use of its website during Covid. Second, People’s law School in British Columbia shifted its face to face outreach educational work to zoom and increased its numbers. And finally, Those working in the field received unprecedented levels of support, training and collaboration through digital support like those provided by the Self Represented Litigants Network in the US and the (recently renamed) Network for Justice. More on these and others to follow.
This is the fourth assessment of an issue to be covered in a prospective analysis of current developments and likely trends in access to justice and technology.
Featured image from Pixabay.