Ian Carr, CEO of leading Ipswich-based law firm Prettys, explains how the legal field has survived during the pandemic and why this shows the legal system needs to continue to be digitalised.
In light of the recent global health pandemic, people, business and just about everything else have faced a series of unprecedented challenges. The scale and impact of these challenges are unlike anything we have experienced before and leaders, in particular, have been put to the test in their ability to manage business continuity and protect the interests of companies and enterprises of different kinds.
A common theme for all businesses is the reliance we now have on digital processes. That poses a serious question to the legal profession – is it finally time for law to permanently embrace digital technology?
As workers have been unable to commute to the office, sit in open plan workspaces, conduct face to face meetings, consultations and even court hearings due to social distancing rules, remote working via online platforms has been the only sensible solution, even now as lockdown has eased.
In a field which still values the traditional means of operating, legal services have faced (and still face) a lot of difficulty in adapting to this new way of working. And, with uncertainty surrounding how long the offline world will continue to be affected by the pandemic, there is no doubt that in order to continue ‘business as usual’ digital dependence is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
In order to proactively meet these challenges, they faced and will continue to, law firms and other legal service providers must permanently put measures in place that ensure business continuity at a time of unprecedented adversity. Here are some of the measures which were implemented during the lockdown and could stay for the further future.
The day-to-day activities conducted in a law firm have perhaps been the most heavily impacted by the pandemic. Whilst protecting employees is important, so is fulfilling client requests. At the end of the day, providing client satisfaction is at the forefront of any legal service and, pandemic or not, this must remain the focus.
That said, there are many measures that can be taken in order to protect the workforce and welcoming digital means has made this much easier. For example, by encouraging clients not to visit the office unless absolutely necessary and, instead, integrating video conferencing into phone line systems, client expectations have been managed and the safety of employees and clients has not been put at risk.
Whilst flexible working, including working from home is a common employee benefit, it is one that has come into practice now more than ever. With this being the case, businesses have been required to ensure seamless systems are in place.
With no back-up team in the office to fall back on, should systems fail, reliable digital platforms have proved to be lifesaving in keeping businesses afloat at such an uncertain time.
Another key consideration for law firms is the responsibility they have to keep data and information strictly confidential. It is simply not an option to use standard digital services to continue working, so that has perhaps been one of the most prominent challenges firms have faced or will face when shifting to remote practice.
It would be unfair to say that the legal field as a whole has not recognised the benefits of adopting digital practices prior to the pandemic. Courts have made efforts to go paperless using a digital case system and accepts electronic filing. They have accepted electronic signatures since the introduction of the Civil Procedure Rules.
However, with hearings and tribunals still heavily reliant on face-to-face processes, the challenges presented by the pandemic raised questions on what further reforms were required in order to develop a robust justice system in the UK.
Use of video and telephone hearings have been encouraged as jury trials were temporarily suspended and other hearings delayed during the midst of the pandemic. This pause has no doubt seen the courts inundated with a backlog of cases now trials have resumed. This has pressured the court service to work on other ways to lessen the impact future adversity could cause.
Although we have been forced somewhat to adopt these alternative ways of working due to the circumstances of a pandemic, it will be interesting to see what, if any, measures influence the future of law. The field has shown slow digital adaptation over recent years, however, the speed at which online aids have been accepted in a time of need, may have opened the minds of many leaders in the industry.
Digital means of communication are now vital to many businesses and industries. We have seen the rise of email in recent decades and the next step appears to be video conference calls to replace in-person meetings. In law, this has also been extended to court hearings, posing questions about whether this will become the new norm.
Whilst the personal touch involved in many legal services remains a key characteristic, meetings and hearings conducted via video offer benefits, such as savings on time, travel costs and other valuable resources, which could benefit firms, clients and the courts alike.
However, there are still obstacles which will no doubt need to be overcome in order for the digitisation of the legal system to progress further. For example, it is still common that mortgage lenders require a hard-copy signature on a mortgage deed. Mortgage lenders will often require their report on the property title and their request for mortgage funds to be hard signed too, this is often not acceptable by email and so the best remote way of doing this currently is through fax but that is clearly outdated and an improved digital system would certainly be welcomed
In a similar vein, another problem often encountered while homeworking is the printing of large documents due to a lack of equipment. Of course, it is not always feasible for businesses to provide every employee with the facilities to print reams of documents at home, but this also raises questions over the sector’s actual requirement for hard-copy printed materials. Change in that area may well be the more logical step forward. Consideration also needs to be given to the safety and security of client data when working remotely.
The entire world has and still is experiencing something unprecedented and everyone has been doing their best to maintain normal operations. Lawyers are by no means the only ones working from home en masse for the first time but the global pandemic has, among many, many other things, throwing into sharp relief the need for the legal profession and the judicial system to further incorporate digital technologies.