On Thursday last week, the doyen of US legal tech commentators, Bob Ambrogi, assembled a panel from some of his country’s heaviest hitting commercial law firms. The title of his LawNext:Live broadcast was ‘The Innovation Advantage – Driving Client Value in the Midst of COVID-19’. So, we had representatives of Shearman and Stirling (Meredith Williams-Range), Baker McKenzie (David Cambria), Cooley (Adam Ruttenberg) and Blank Rome (Linda Novosel) – all chaired by the amiable Bob and Lexis Nexis’ Josh Baker. Through the miracle that is zoom, I attended – specifically to see if there were read-across lessons for the smaller firms and organisations that make up access to justice providers.
A bunch of high achievers like those assembled had to proceed through a bit of jostling before they got to the collaboration bit. First, the boasts. One firm tested its work at home arrangements on Friday and was able to announce that it was shutting down its office on Monday. Another decided on remote working on Wednesday and was ready with ‘full remote’ on Friday. ‘We pushed through zoom in 48 hours’ (no problems with security then). And everyone – they all tended to be on the technology side of the business – was pretty gung-ho on how everything is going: ‘There is no “when we get back to work”’ – they still were at work. ‘We have seen a decade of innovation in two months’, said another. A third reported that ‘the adaptability and dedication since the last recession is now on full display. It is like someone who becomes famous after years of preparation. We had no choice. The infrastructure was in place’.
These firms all have, of course, hugely more resources than a struggling small law firm, law centre or legal aid authority. As one speaker admitted, ‘Not all firms are in our position. If the infrastructure had not been in place, it would have been much harder. It has been a struggle for some firms’.
The differences then are clear: but similarities still emerge. What technology was it that was really making a difference? ‘The order of priority of projects has changed. Things like AI have gone to the backseat.’ ‘To the forefront is people’. And with people comes video. One speaker said, ’Nothing has changed on substance. It is still a question of trust in people.’ And that connection with people – internal staff and external clients and others – has shifted decisively to video – beyond the phone. “The default is now jump on a video call’. The firms were using video to keep the human touch in dealing with clients; they were using it internally for communicating with their staff, mentoring and maintaining social contact’. On the social side, one firm rather charmingly had set up a virtual tour for its staff of an animal rescue farm; another had run an internal hackathon; and another, more conventionally, was into virtual happy hours. And the firms were beginning to grapple with what will become ‘the new normal’: ‘It will never go back to what it once was. No one is going to want to commute for two hours a day every day. This is not over any time soon.’
So, if visual contact is important in the wealthiest areas of practice is it equally important for the poorest? Here, the issue splits. There is no reason why small firms and organisations cannot rely on video connection internally – and that evidence is that many are already doing so. A basic zoom subscription is, after all, free. And you would not be alone in not dwelling too much on the security risks. The real question is posed by clients: can more communication be shifted to video so that staff can work remotely and clients do not have to come to an office? Let us accept that for some there will be no substitute for the traditional face to face meeting – there will be clients with massive bundles of documents; clients without mobile phones capable of using FaceTime or Skype; clients without the technological, cultural, language or other skills. Smalllaw is going to have to figure how they will feel safe in their offices.
But there will be some clients – particularly perhaps given the newly impoverished of the Covid-19 catastrophe – who can use video on their phones, laptops or tablets. And there will be more who could communicate by video if they could get access to the technology and funds to defray the cost. Could video chat facilities assist automated document production and advice-giving? In England and Wales, this is a part of the award-winning FLOWS collaboration. Could there be more tie-ups with places like public libraries with free wifi (this is already common in some jurisdictions but not in mine)? Could centres and firms find the funds and organisation to provide more free communication by reverse charging, toll-free calling or prepaid costs? For many months, some clients will not feel happy coming to a centre or a firm in the normal way – especially those where space is at a premium and the waiting room habitually crowded (as it is in most small firms and centres – and, for those dependent on payment per case, needs to be) So, can access to justice providers adapt?
Linked to recognition of personal visual communication #Biglaw put a common emphasis on the process of managing work. One firm had prioritised the process of allocation to make it fairer and others had accelerated the introduction of portals to facilitate communication with clients who are able to get direct access to the state of their case. Along with that came an emphasis on data. The big firms want data that provide accessible dashboards on how they are doing. One said that they even wanted to know about ‘the contagion cycle and our office location’. If A2J firms and organisations are going to operate remotely, they too will need data on a range of matters that will mean they really need efficient case management systems. And these will need to go beyond the passive monitoring of case progression and provision of standard documentation to software that actually starts to drive cases by prompts of various kinds. Small firms and organisations need to find the same sort of savings in efficiency that biglaw takes for granted. This is where a firm like Clio has positioned itself in the market for small firm case management with its ability to take bolt-on specialist additions. Very wise.
The big takeaway from #Biglaw seems to be that technology – particularly video and case management – was vital but, as someone said, ‘You have got to deal with people and processes before you deal with technology. It can’t be technology for technology’s sake’. That is an insight which might well take the gloss off some of the hype in the overheated legaltech market. And there are possible downsides. ’Technology can accelerate the rate at which you get off track. It speeds things up. It can be negative. It can erode education and culture.’ And, the whole issue of data security is, as someone said, ‘the elephant in the room’.
#Biglaw is actively contemplating downsizing its office requirements and shifting its business model – emphasising people and process. Assume we have outbreaks of the virus for the next year. An economic crisis will surely follow the current public health one. More clients; tighter funding (particularly as governments move to recover their upfront costs in managing the pandemic). #Biglaw surely has some lessons. How fitting that they were accessible in another country by a cheap video package.