Technology, COVID likely to Shape Law Profession for Years to Come
Of all the industries impacted by the encroachment of technology and the creep of COVID-19, law firms aren’t the first to spring to many people’s attention. But that’s exactly what’s happening in legal firms and courtrooms all over the country, and Arkansas legal experts say, for better or worse, it’s likely to continue.
“I’ve been forced to become what I call a COVID lawyer the last year and a half,” said Mike Moore, partner with Friday, Eldredge & Clark in Little Rock. “That’s been really good in some ways and really frustrating in others. But it seems to be all I talk about, at this point.
“The great thing about COVID is it has taught us that we do have the ability to work remotely. The problem is finding that balance and being able to serve the client in a way that the client both deserves and expects.”
Moore’s observations are consistent with what’s happening in the profession nationwide. He said from extending a firm’s marketing and recruitment reach to simply serving underserved areas, technology holds great potential, particularly in states like Arkansas that have traditionally struggled to bring legal expertise within reach of rural and small-town residents.
“I believe that what we are finding out about our use of technology will help overall,” Moore said. “I will tell you that we can follow up with clients in a way that we simply weren’t able to before, and all they have to do is have a smartphone. We’re able to answer questions and talk to them in a productive manner as a result. I think there are a ton of positives in the legal community that can come from this.”
Andrew King, partner with Kutak Rock in Little Rock, agreed, saying the legal profession has lagged other industries for too long when it comes to harnessing data to achieve better outcomes more efficiently, thereby serving the client better.
“More and more data has become available for lawyers, and it has to do with the automation of the court system and electronic filing,” King said. “The problem we’ve always had in the law practice is that while court records are public records, for a long time, they were hard to gather and obtain because you’d have to go to the clerk’s office, you’d have to pay for copies. You’d have to make a specific request for what you want.
“Electronic filing makes it possible for third-party companies to pull that information and create databases and to gather information. It makes all the sense in the world for lawyers to use and understand this data in how they handle litigation. The best lawyers will find ways to use that to their advantage.”
Nationally, technology and COVID have combined to accelerate a seismic shift in the industry over the past 18 months. Opinions on the balance of these changes being for the industry’s good or to its detriment abound.
As Jenn Betts wrote in a May 2020 op-ed on Law.com, “Enormous pressures to control cost, increase efficiencies and continue to deliver quality legal services are mounting, while at the same time lawyers and alternative service providers are confronted with the difficult realities of (often) working remotely, managing home responsibilities and remaining vigilant about physical and emotional health. Legal technology can and should play a critical role in this transformation.”
At the same time, technology has been shown to be less than a panacea, counters the American Bar Association. In February, the ABA presented results from a survey of 4,400 members that showed while myriad of tools are at many barristers’ disposal, such tools did not solve fundamental issues surrounding their professional lives.
“Many members feel completely overwhelmed with all they have to do,” said Stephanie Scharf of the Chicago-based Red Bee Group, which designed and managed the survey. She noted further that issues surrounding employer support, client access, developing business and meeting billable hour requirements were causing significant stress, especially among women with young children. These lawyers often felt overlooked and were concerned employers viewed them as not as committed to their work, leading many to consider leaving the profession altogether.
“The data is very sobering,” said co-presenter Roberta Liebenberg of the Red Bee Group. “It is incumbent on legal employers to remain laser-focused on the strategies necessary to develop a diverse group of lawyers and to reexamine and revamp their culture, policies and practices.”
Margaret Sova McCabe, dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, said the prolonged impact of technology on the legal profession reaches every element of the attorney-client experience, to say nothing of emerging legal specialties.
“It’s an open question how much COVID will have a long-term influence on remote work for lawyers. But early trends are there is much more of an interest through a forced experiment,” she said. “Some firms had tremendous success, and some firms see perhaps their talent pools as wider than they did before.
“But there is also a substantive impact on the law. Data privacy law, privacy law and intellectual property were all pretty hot topics before the pandemic and are even hotter now in terms of more use of online and digital ways of communicating.”
McCabe also expects to see COVID at the center of emerging legal issues as debate continues to rage on the civil rights front. Where racial and gender equality issues headlined last summer, forthcoming cases will likely be argued in matters concerning mandatory vaccines and right to work.
“I think we’ll see a continuum on the intersection of individual rights and public health,” she said. “Keep in mind, our tradition in the U.S. has often been to require certain kinds of vaccinations, and that obviously has an established safety record. So, we do have that history, in part.
“At the same time, we don’t have a lot of examples like employment being front and center in a vaccine mandate, right? It’s all brand new. So, I think that goes beyond individual rights and public health and into employment law. What can an employer mandate that their employees do in the workplace that they must do or lose their jobs?
“It really has caused an interesting revisiting of that intersection, again, between individual rights and public health mandates and where the right balance is.”