If there were ever an industry known for its reluctance to adapt to change, it would be legal. You might argue that this techno-conservatism is built into the architecture, so to speak. Lawyers spend long hours living in the historical world of legal precedents, studying old cases, and applying past laws to present cases. It makes sense that the ensuing business culture that developed among attorneys was a bit change-averse, to put it lightly.
This, of course, is a generalization. But, law firms tend to have a reverence for tradition that is mild or completely absent in other industries. This post is going to explore the ways that reverence for tradition—in the form of a traditional brick and mortar law firm— may be holding back your attorneys, staff, and ultimately, your practice from growth.
But first, let’s explore some myths regarding how the legal industry performed during the pandemic.
Then Came COVID, The Great Disruptor
Nearly every sector has struggled in some way since March of 2020. Many industries surveyed the wreckage of the pandemic economy, studied its significant disruptions, and adapted to meet the new circumstances of the ‘new normal.’ They went remote if necessary, hybrid if possible, and incorporated new telecommunication and task management platforms into their systems.
But how did the legal industry fare, specifically?
Law firms that were large enough to survive the first year of the pandemic did so through cutting expenses, reducing salaries, and implementing an effective remote work strategy. Most of these firms that make up Big Law reported financial growth despite the global health crisis. According to the American Bar Association, “74 of the top 100 firms reported increases in 2020, and 42 achieved gross revenue of $1 billion or more.”
But, what about the smaller firms? The ones made up of one or two attorneys and a handful of staff? They were hit especially hard in the first few months. Most criminal and consumer-related trials were postponed due to closing courtrooms and businesses. This resulted in a 59% drop in criminal cases—the bread and butter of many small law firms. According to Clio’s Legal Trends for Solo Law Firms report, smaller firms lost between 5% – 7% of revenue between April and June 2020.
To Sum Up:
Big Law had the resources and capital to make the appropriate changes and was rewarded with growth. Large firms could afford to incorporate new telecommunication technologies and remote work strategies into their systems.
Small firms struggled to adapt to closures, had more difficulty going virtual, and were slower to incorporate new emerging telecommunication technologies into their systems.
The Takeaway: If you are a smaller law firm, you need to adapt while the times are (relatively) good! That way, it’s easier to weather the times that aren’t so good.
How to Implement the Lessons of the Past Two Years
After much trial and error, we have learned a few things that small law firms might want to incorporate into their business culture.
Hybrid is the Way Forward
Technology has not yet matched the in-person advantages of teaching and mentoring young attorneys. Completely remote law firms will lack this critical part of the process. Remote work in and of itself is not the issue, but rather the lack of physical proximity between young and senior attorneys means much of the essence gets lost through zoom.
However, having the option for remote work is crucial for addressing many of the problems the 9-5 (and usually more) in-office experience creates for some employees. Allowing an employee to work some days remotely out of the week can help boost mental health, reduce the stress surrounding the daily commute (as well as reduce the lost time!), and help moderate their work/life balance. Some days, it’s just not necessary to be in person.
From a Management Perspective…
Tracking productivity is indeed more difficult when remote work is added to the equation. However, having a centralized space where people remain in one place for long stretches of time doesn’t necessarily lend itself to productivity.
According to a Stanford study, researchers studied 16,000 employees over nine months. Half were to work from home and the other half from the office. Those employees that worked from home were 13% more productive than their peers who worked from the office.
The Takeaway for Small Law Firms
Much of the work a lawyer does is in thinking and writing, which are pretty solitary activities. They may even be more productive at the tasks if given a choice to work remotely or in the office. Though indeed, there isn’t a replacement for true in-person mentoring and apprenticeship, remote work isn’t a zero-sum game. There is always a middle path, and many small law firms would benefit from choosing the center path over either extremity.
Veronica Davis is a writer, blogger, and legal assistant operating out of the greater Philadelphia area. She writes for Todd Mosser, a successful criminal appellate attorney.