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COVID-19 Was a Big Catalyst for Law Firms, Is It Still? Or What Will Move the Needle Next?

By Christiane Matuch posted 09-09-2022 16:27

Please enjoy this blog post which is posted on behalf of the author, Ann Rainhart, Chief Strategy Officer, Taft Law.

Evolving takes time. In fact, lasting evolutionary change takes about one million years. Of course when we talk about change in law firms we don’t really mean the “Darwin” kind of evolution. For those of us who focus on doing things better and faster, and who care about helping people find meaning and success in their professional lives, we’ve spent most of our careers talking about helping lawyers and law firms evolve the practice of law in innovative and successful ways. And many of us might confess to feeling like significant change would never really happen, as true evolution takes a very long time. And then Covid-19 came out of nowhere.

A little less than six weeks before the pandemic began materially in the United States, I stood on a stage at our firm’s retreat in Scottsdale, AZ—a retreat that unified the merger of my mid-size Minneapolis law firm with Taft, a larger firm focused on meeting the moment we are in and looking to the future. I spoke about change and strategy to the lawyers and senior executive team and breezily mentioned potential threats to our strategy including world events that would take us off course. You would think I carried a crystal ball around with me. But of course, even as I said those words, it really didn’t occur to me that we would experience what we’ve all been through during the last few years. I didn’t see a big catalyst for change coming. I just wanted to warn others about the potential for one, because at my core I want to believe change happens.

And change did happen. We all more than know the story. We’ve now witnessed first-hand how a big earthly event can shake us to our core and pivot us overnight into living in ways we never contemplated. We’ve learned a lot, including the knowledge that we can all work successfully from home, at least for a while, in the legal profession. Those of us in privilege acknowledged we needed a break from the busyness of our professional and personal lives—a collective time-out! Technology saved us and many in the law firms embraced it fully for the first time in their lives. Discussion of what our clients needed, how we work, where we work, how we price our work and who is in leadership became norm for both strategic and operational planning. There were also downsides as people’s mental and physical health plunged. Change occurred and we were now in a different place—some of it positive, some of it not.

Just because we are in a different place doesn’t mean that change is complete or the needle won’t move more. As I draw upon my prescient ability and years of leading lawyers through change, I see murkiness and bumpiness ahead. Technology stabilized the legal profession during the pandemic and will continue to play a critical role in our success going forward. However, the majority of lawyers went to law school to make a difference. They individually define that in a myriad of ways, but lawyers are people who value the carefully written word and critical reasoning. Law firm lawyers have marked part of their identity through their firm. The practice of law firm lawyering is built on the idea of developing others into lawyers—through education, training programs, mentoring, feedback and evaluations as associates morph from students to business owners. We stand in a moment in time that shakes how and where we do all of that off its traditional foundation and many pundits have been quick to declare the old way dead—and the “work remotely wherever you want, use technology” the clear path forward. Legal technology professionals have a unique position in this time by helping the broader industry weave together how technology and data capabilities successfully intersect with law firm culture, client needs and legal practice.

I think the way forward is not a straight and clear line. My prediction is the next phase of our time in this profession will be marked by forward moments, back-tracking to what was, early adopters who succeed, and early adopters who fail. My instinct and experience tells me that the path forward requires us to think about what people need first, which is human connection, thoughtful communication crafted for the lawyer audience and strong leadership. Leadership in this moment is nuanced and values diverse voices and ideas. Durable change occurs when early adopters are successful and the larger whole can see how they can follow that path with good and inclusive results-results for people as well as the bottom line. The key to moving the needle next is to acknowledge that tradition and nostalgia are powerful forces in law firms, even when significant change is in the wind. Moving forward must include helping lawyers see and feel that continuing to evolve is worth it. As technology leaders, what solutions do you have to support the effort?