Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, there is immense pressure on many companies across different sectors of the economy. These are challenging times for businesses and law firms alike – hurdles, unlike anything that they have encountered before.
Law firms have had to adapt and are continuing to adapt. Law firms have probably never had to be so quick or indeed as quickly tested in reality thanks to COVID-19.
Arguably businesses have led the way mainly through the up and coming start-ups working in a novel and innovative ways. Their mantra is – ‘this is how we work, so we expect you as our lawyers to do the same’. Disaster recovery tests have become common as have “pen tests” (i.e. how safe are your systems to protect our data) at probably all law firms.
Many firms have moved whole-sale into the cloud for data storage; often justifying it on security grounds alone. The fact remains that “paper risk” is high, particularly when confidential printouts are sent to the wrong printer or left for days on the side before being shredded.
Refining operations to befit the digital age
Client data these days is predominantly electronic. Electronic data stored by law firms must be stored safely, in a secure and available environment so that lawyers can continue to support their clients.
In many respects, the COVID-19 lockdown with the associated large-scale working from home represented a seismic change, for most law firms used to working with paper, secretaries aligned to elderly partners relying on old-fashioned proven techniques. Pre-COVID-19, this out-dated way of working was by no means the norm but surprisingly more common than many firms would care to admit. The law firm environment would have to have changed regardless.
Often explaining to the “experienced” senior partner, you can send documents by email, use track-changes to negotiate proposed document changes and then to agree on a final version, was traditionally a challenge. Not anymore – this has become the new normal.
However, getting the message across that you can arrange a digital signing using relatively simple programs that run on your smartphone has continued to be a challenge with some firms. Those firms embracing technology will thrive in the new environment.
Understanding & use of technology
Concerns remain around security and enterprise-grade software. By expanding their use of technology, most firms have adapted because they have had to and not because their senior partners particularly wanted to.
Some practitioners may argue practices must change for documents proposed to be signed as deeds – remembering experienced partners screaming blue murder at trainees who dared to remove staples late at night while photocopying the paper files. Yes, this really did happen in my career.
Arranging documents within a firm have been overhauled in recent years. Honestly, it has had to adapt to meet the increasing availability demands from clients and as lawyers have been expected to travel internationally.
Document management systems have become common as often have separate litigation documentation systems. If you are on a conference call with a Judge, you do not want to be seen as unable to find the relevant document or be seen as having difficulty updating (especially if you only have a pdf reader) and have no way to comply with the Judge’s order on what amendments to make. Time has become of the essence and this is dependent on technology.
Often people do not realise that in reality, these systems, not single software solutions but several point solutions e.g. editable PDF software is often a separate app to the office 365 document or the pdf stored in the firms central or cloud-based document store.
Data born digitally – the new norm
Now the new norm is all data, documents and communications are prima facie born digital. By this, I mean the documents only exist in digital form (pdf, word, etc.). At some point, accessing the whole systems is reliant on internet/data. Surely people may print, but it is born digital and remains so throughout its life.
Nevertheless, will the institutions’ lawyers need to complete their functions to follow suit and move to full digital service? Or will we still be dependent on sending the paper to Companies House to file a resolution changing the articles or during a company restoration process?
The future of tech lawyers could be very different
Companies house already allow web filings for specific documents. Will COVID-19 lockdown mean that this service will expand?
Arguably it will have to, but the process of change is often slower than many wishes. Anyone who fills in a self-assessment will also know how HMRC have been able to digitise a lot of what they do – although in the author’s opinion paying stamp duty by cheques remains an antiquated process.
Other than a few examples, HMRC has been at the forefront of moving to digital. The author is surprised he is writing this too, but it is right in principle.
The “Artificial Intelligence” chat-bots that appear with HMRC are quite impressive at making “informed” suggestions and offering a value-added to the user. A right law firm will need technology to do the same – sooner rather than later.
A glimpse into the future for law firms
All law firms have to look at robust ways their staff can work from home; think clear telephone/headset, robust email and document store. Some firms are utilising Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems and even instant messenger software such as “Slack” across the firm to reduce the dependency on email.
Wait a minute I thought only funky Hi-tech start-ups used such funky systems? Well no, these systems are being adopted by many firms – the continuing rise of Microsoft Teams is of note. All of this availability leads to significant advantages to the firm and its clients.
There is also high governance and compliance hurdle to meet – the future is bright, but law firms must get used to enforcing governance and compliance policy across all its systems, and this is not without challenges.
Client needs to know their data is safe and only accessed by those who need to represent them. That data is available wherever the lawyer needs to work, whether that is at home, the office or in an airport (when we can all travel again – now wouldn’t that be nice).
Released and co-authored by Ali Panchoo (Qredible)
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