The past year has been a long and uncertain one. COVID-19 impacted the world in so many ways – some of which were predictable, while others were completely unexpected. The legal profession was certainly not immune from the impact of the pandemic, and many predict that the practice of law won’t look the same on the other side of the pandemic.
Post-pandemic predictions survey
Now that the vaccine is here and we can see a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s time to look to the future and envision the reality of post-pandemic life and what that means for the practice of law. While no one can predict the future, there are resources available to help us understand what the future for lawyers may hold. For example, the ABA Coordinating Group on Practice Forward published a report earlier this week that was designed to increase understanding about both the impact of the pandemic on the practice of law and predictions about the future of the legal profession.
The Report, Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward: Results and Best Practices from a Nationwide Survey of the Legal Profession, was based on input from 4,200 ABA members “from all geographic areas, practice settings, sizes of firms, corporations, and organizations, levels of experience, age, family status, races and ethnicities, types of gender identity, and types of disabilities.” The results cover a broad overview of topics ranging from the impact of the pandemic on the legal profession to post-pandemic expectations and recommendations for both legal employers and individual lawyers.
Because there’s so much great data in this report on such a wide array of interesting topics, I’m going to write a 3-post series over the next few weeks about some of the results of this survey. In today’s post I’ll focus on the survey findings relating to the impact of the pandemic on the practice of law. Next week I’ll cover the advice offered for legal employers on the other side of the pandemic and then in the last post I’ll provide recommendations made in the report that will help individual lawyers find success in the “new normal.”
Remote work trends and challenges
The Report provided lots of interesting data on the ways that remote work impacted the personal and professional lives of lawyers. According to the lawyers surveyed, there were many benefits to working remotely during the pandemic. A top benefits was more time with family and loved ones. Another notable finding was that some lawyers reported that working remotely actually increased their efficiency:
About 70% of lawyers reported spending more time with the people they lived with than a year ago. This result was especially true for lawyers with dependent children at home (approximately 79%). Somewhat to our surprise, lawyers generally reported no meaningful change in their efficiency doing work…”
However, as you might expect, lawyers shared that there were some drawbacks to working remotely as well. Notably, not all lawyers found that their efficiency increased while working form home. And, as you might imagine, the challenges that lack of childcare created during the pandemic coupled with the in-home schooling requirements took their toll:
Over 90% of lawyers are spending more time on video or conference calls, but about 55% are spending less time on developing business or reaching out to clients. The presence of younger children in the household predicts even less outreach to clients…(and) lawyers with young children at home experienced a greater decrease in their efficiency.
According to the Report, the lawyers surveyed emphasized the importance of having well-equipped home offices. Survey respondents emphasized the importance of access to sufficient IT support, high quality computer equipment, and effective remote working software. The ability to easily access law firm data and files in the cloud ranked particularly high as did the need for high speed and reliable internet access.
The large majority of lawyers report that it is either “very important” or “extremely important” (1) for home equipment to parallel office equipment, such as printers/scanners, computers, and ergonomic equipment (65%); (2) to have “office quality internet access” (86%); (3) to have “excellent access to office online files” (87%); and (4) to have strong IT support (77%).
Last but not least, one of the top challenges that lawyers experienced during the pandemic was business development. Because of the social distancing requirements of the pandemic, many of the professional networking opportunities and other community events that lawyers typically participated in came to a sudden and grinding halt because of the pandemic. For that reason, more than half of the survey respondents indicated that “getting new business” was one of the biggest challenges encountered during the pandemic:
We asked how much harder it was to obtain new business from existing clients or new clients, to get decisions from clients, be responsive to client requests, be productive on client matters, and set up client meetings. The greatest increase in difficulty was getting business from new clients—which 52% of lawyers reported as harder or much harder than last year.
Future-facing remote work trends and expectations
Now let’s move on to the learnings from the Report regarding how lawyers think that the pandemic will affect the practice of law both short term and long term. Not surprisingly, when asked for their thoughts about the future of law, survey respondents emphasized the continued impact of remote work on the legal profession. Lawyers shared that they fully expected to continue working remotely post-pandemic at far higher rates than they had before the pandemic struck. However, the amount of work that would conducted remotely varied greatly:
The majority of respondents (66%) believe it is it likely or very likely that many lawyers in their particular workplace will continue working mostly or entirely remotely in 2021 and 2022. In that context, a sizable number of respondents —36%—reported that their personal preference is to have the flexibility to choose their own schedule from week to week. The remaining lawyers split roughly evenly between the option of working 4–5 days a week in the office (23%), or 2–3 days a week in the office (21%) or 1 day a week or rarely in the office (19%).
When asked if they were concerned about returning to the office, whether on a full or part-time basis, most lawyers expressed that they had very few concerns about their safety now that vaccines are being rolled out across the country. Therefore, it’s not surprising that most lawyers also expressed high levels of confidence in the safety protocols that would be in place upon their return to in-office work:
Looking to 2021 and 2022, a large majority of lawyers (74%) were either “not at all concerned” or only “slightly concerned” about returning to the office before a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is available, and had similarly low levels of concern about adequate safety protocols being put into effect by an employer, colleagues not following safety protocols like wearing masks and social distancing, or even being inside an office building which may lack good ventilation or have poor security in public places.
Finally, the lawyers surveyed also provided their thoughts on the types of technology support that they would need from their firms once the pandemic ends and they began to split time between in-office and remote work. The categories where lawyers reported that the most assistance would be required centered on remote work software and tools and law firm technology generally:
(Lawyers reported) it would be helpful in their practice going forward to have guidance about the use of technology for remote working (55%), guidance about law firm technology (50%), and guidance about home office practices (43%).
In other words, lawyers are more than ready to get back to work – but only when the time is right and with the necessary support. Importantly, remote working flexibility will be a must, as will access to the legal technology software and tools needed to enable a flexible work schedule.
So that’s how the pandemic has shaped lawyers perspectives and expectations about remote work. Make sure to check back in the weeks to come for a deep dive into the recommendations from the Report for legal employers and lawyers in the post-pandemic world. In the meantime, download this free guide that will walk you through the changes caused by the pandemic and how to best take advantage of them: Adapt or Fail – Industry Changes Law Firms Can’t Afford to Ignore.