When the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe, law firms and their clients had to pivot seemingly overnight. The world of working remotely and adapting to new ways of communicating and collaborating in a digital space arrived.
As it turns out, change came more readily than we expected from the legal profession. Firms analyzed the new situation, learned how to use new technology and tools, and developed more efficient processes. But as the world slowly emerges from an entirely remote work environment, questions remain. What are the takeaways for the legal industry? What tools and technologies have been most useful? What changes will last? Which ones should last?
Where Do We Go From Here?
As firms look to move back to a new normal, it’s important they continue to be thoughtful about changing mindsets instead of just focusing on the tools and workflows that were imperative during lockdowns. It makes little sense for firms to abandon new technologies, workflows, and efficiencies once people start returning to the office. They need a plan for encouraging staff and attorneys to continue to use the tools and processes that helped them successfully transition to a new work environment and be ready to embrace new tools and processes in the future.
At my firm, Vorys, we are currently preparing for a vastly different work world where many people will return to the office, but not necessarily full time. We anticipate it will be routine for people to be working both in the office and from home. While it takes some planning, we believe firms should remain open to new approaches to all workflows and processes even after the pandemic is over.
For instance, in addition to continuing the use of tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, we can also deploy domain-specific technologies to adapt to new situations.
There are several examples out there—eDiscovery platforms and cloud-based case management systems—that can help with collaborating with co-counsel, clients, and expert witnesses who were managing their own remote environments, without interruption.
An example is our cloud-based case management system, Opus 2, which allowed us to continue collaborating with co-counsel, clients, and expert witnesses who were managing their own remote environments, without interruption. We anticipate this system will be indispensable in the coming months as our firm adapts to a likely increase in virtual depositions and hybrid trial proceedings.
New case management and docketing systems are making it possible for attorneys to collect information and respond to issues without engaging in endless back-and-forth conversations and email threads that can extend into hundreds of messages over the course of months or years.
These are just a few examples where openness to change, a formal planning process, and careful technology vetting can lead to increased productivity—even in the face of unexpected crises.
Establish a Framework for Managing Change
Many law firms were caught off guard by the suddenness and seriousness of operating in a pandemic environment. But the profession adapted quickly and successfully because there was a framework in place—well before the pandemic—that allowed us to identify potential problems and plan for multiple contingencies. We were already moving to increase the digitization of our litigation workflows and enable remote collaboration, and that helped us manage the transformation that was forced by the pandemic.
An important milepost at Vorys was planted a few years back, when our information management leadership team implemented ideas from the book “The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business,” by Patrick Lencioni. This included clearly defining:
- Why do we exist?
- How do we behave?
- What do we do?
- How we will succeed?
- What is most important right now?
- Who must do what?
Answering these questions enabled Vorys to create strategic anchors and operating objectives. Every four to six months, we identify our thematic goal, which is aligned with the firm’s goal, based on the answer to fifth question: What is most important right now? We then create defining objectives to achieve the thematic goal. We assign groups to brainstorm, develop, vet, implement, and measure success for each defining objective.
This structure serves as a professional development opportunity for our team members, as well as an opportunity to engage cross-functional teams and build relationships. These groups report progress and challenges to the management team. We have also found that it is important to evaluate success at the completion of each defining objective and the overall thematic goal. Then, we celebrate accomplishments before moving on to the next goal.
This approach can benefit other firms, even if it takes a different form. The most important thing is to figure out a structure that works for your organization and then stick with it.
As the last 18 months have proven, law firms are quite capable of significant, transformative change when they need to be. While the world of work may revert to a more familiar environment, firms should take the opportunity presented by the pandemic to embrace the good that emerged and build on it.
For many firms, the “good” meant successfully transitioning to a digital environment and improving communication. Now it’s time to think about how to continue those changes into the future and improve upon them.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Julie K. Brown is director of practice technology at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP in Columbus, Ohio.