Social distancing could engender new technological habits among attorneys that change how law is practiced.
Law firms around the country have shut doors and ordered telework, while courts prepare to hold hearings by telephone and video conference. U.S. regulatory agencies, from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to the Securities and Exchange Commission, have moved much of their work to be done remotely.
The changes could be eye-opening for firms that were slow to embrace telework in the past, once they recognize the efficiency of software programs that help with workflow and portfolio management, Christian Zust, regional innovation solutions director for the Americas for Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, said.
“I think they’ll be more open to it,” Zust said.
Attorneys, generally considered to be slow tech-adopters, are coming around to remote-access technology tools, such as Zoom, Slack and LiveLitigation. The changes, forced by self-isolation amid the new coronavirus outbreak, could accelerate technology development and change some key functions, such as deposing witnesses and participating in hearings.
“For those old-school lawyers who may have been reluctant to embrace technology this pandemic has to be a big wake-up call,” said Joseph Moreno, a partner at Cadwalader and former federal prosecutor. “Hosting multi-party video conferences, securely handling and transferring client data files, and working paperless and remote all from a laptop or possibly even an iPad has become the new reality.”
Drew DeVoogd, a patent litigator at Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo PC, had never used Zoom until last week. But he spent around 20 hours on the video calling app from his home office to talk with clients and attend firm meetings.
“I never would’ve thought that that was a viable way of doing business,” DeVoogd said.
Many attorneys have long insisted on taking depositions in person despite the availability of remote tech options, said Larry Silfen, founder of legal services provider TSG Reporting Inc.
But even the most skeptical attorneys recently have asked TSG for help in using services like LiveLitigation, a software product for holding depositions, arbitrations, and other litigation events live over the web, according to Silfen.
The current situation could also accelerate the development of remote deposition technology.
Many depositions are still conducted in a “very archaic fashion,” like dropping a 2,000-page paper copy of technical documents on a witness who hasn’t seen it before, said Doug Wilson, a trial attorney at Armond Wilson LLP.
“I’m hopeful that in a situation like this, people will start to think about whether that makes sense anymore,” Wilson said.
Firms are avoiding more tedious tasks with technology, too. Sharing documents electronically means no more late night runs to FedEx Office for exhibit copies, or overnight shipping of boxes with thousands of documents.
Attorneys, clients and witnesses may reassess the necessity of many travel requirements, given the cost savings they’re now seeing.
Many meetings that once required cross-country flights are now being done from their home offices. That has included frequent but short check-in conference calls among attorneys within individual practice groups, as well as videoconference discussions between firm lawyers and clients, Ali Shahidi, chief innovation and client solutions officer with Sheppard Mullin, said.
“We’ve been collaborating in much better ways. We’re hearing examples of this every day,” Shahidi said.
Kirk Nahra, co-chair of Wilmer Hale’s privacy and cybersecurity group, noted many clients are already accustomed to conference calls. But having dogs and kids he never met show up in conference calls “is actually great,” he said.
Wilson said he is now working with a mediator who’s offering to provide mediation using Zoom.
Foreign corporate clients in places like China or Japan might find that sending employees to a settlement conference in the U.S. may not be the best use of resources, attorneys said.
Other litigation events, such as scheduling conferences, may also be ripe for more widespread transition to remote tools, Raghav Bajaj, an intellectual property practice group partner at Haynes and Boone LLP, said.
“It’s a way to reduce costs on both sides, and to potentially even move things along more quickly,” Bajaj said. “It can be easier to make those dates if you don’t have to travel to them.”
Still, few believe attorneys will ditch in-person work en masse, and there are limits to how far they will rely on technology. Lawyers will likely want to be in the room to depose a critical witness in a case where millions of dollars hang in the balance.
Data security and troubleshooting tech problems are points of concern with employees widely dispersed, Joe Facciponti, cybersecurity counsel at Murphy & McGonigle and a former federal prosecutor said. “When things go wrong, there are no onsite IT professionals to troubleshoot, and virtual help desks may be overwhelmed with requests,” he said.
But the recognition of efficiency and savings in time and money spurred by technology could have effects for years to come.
“Where there’s not a ton of money involved, cases that need to be litigated more efficiently, this might familiarize people with technology that becomes quite useful going forward,” Wilson said.
—With assistance from Daniel R. Stoller
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