The Widening Gulf: How COVID Will Expose Deep Divisions Within the Legal Profession - Priori

The Widening Gulf: How COVID Will Expose Deep Divisions Within the Legal Profession

By Oliver Duchesne

For the past two and a half years I have worked at Priori, the global marketplace connecting in-house teams with outside counsel, which I joined after earning my JD from the University of Sydney. Having a front row seat at a fast-growing technology startup interacting with so many key players — from solo practitioners to boutique firms to large corporate legal departments — has given me a unique look into the changing nature of the legal profession. One undeniable thing I’ve learned along the way is there have always been those within the profession who were more willing than others to experiment with and embrace new technologies. However, it’s clear to me this difference will be even more consequential in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. Lawyers, firms and in-house teams that embrace technology will continue to reap the benefits brought by such an approach, including improved client service, efficient communication and flexible work arrangements. This will allow them to thrive when the lockdown ends as well as successfully navigate future periods of uncertainty. In contrast, I believe those who continue to ignore technology after this crisis will find it increasingly difficult to survive. 

In April 2018, after only five months at Priori, I attended the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) Institute event at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. It was a whirlwind few days of insights, talks, networking and cocktail parties. CLOC was only incorporated in 2016 but has quickly grown in influence, reflecting the rapid transformation in how companies approach their legal spend and outside counsel relationships. In 2017, less than one thousand people attended the conference, whereas the year I went it was sixteen hundred and in 2019 it jumped to over two thousand. If COVID hadn’t struck, the 2020 numbers would have likely been even higher. What the growth of CLOC has shown me is that legal operations has transitioned from a buzzword to a key component for many legal departments and that every year the in-house legal community is becoming more demanding, more discerning and more organized. A key reason for the rapid growth of an organization such as CLOC can be explained by what renowned writer, legal technologist and thought leader, Richard Susskind, describes as the ‘more for less challenge’ faced by corporate legal departments — the idea that increasing cost pressures are forcing in-house teams to produce more work with less resources.  The ‘more for less challenge’ will likely become more acute in the aftermath of COVID-19, as the financial strain brought by the economic downturn will mean legal departments will have less to spend on outside counsel assistance. 

I believe one result of this increased awareness of the bottom line in the wake of COVID-19 will be that corporate legal departments will realize they don’t necessarily need contract attorneys to be on-site. This will further widen the gulf between those contract attorneys, solo practitioners and boutique firms who embrace technology and those who continue to ignore it. According to the 2019 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, only sixty six percent of solo practitioners surveyed used some sort of remote-access software. In addition, only thirty seven percent answered that they used a document or record management system and thirty five percent had a case or practice management system. Although firms did a better job on average than solo practitioners in embracing technology before the pandemic, the same report still indicated that sixteen percent of firms in 2019 did not have any sort of remote-access software available for use by their employees. During the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve spoken to a number of contract attorneys, solo practitioners and boutique firm lawyers who’ve had to download teleconferencing software for the first time. They realized that without it, they'd be unable to effectively provide useful client service during this lockdown. Once the COVID crisis subsides, working remotely could enable contract attorneys, solo practitioners and boutique firms to reduce their overheads and charge lower rates, thus making them a more attractive option for in-house clients looking to keep costs down. It could also well be the case that more corporate legal departments are themselves working remotely moving forward, meaning they’ll only be looking for remote outside counsel options. For this reason, contract attorneys and boutique firms already familiar and comfortable with practice management systems, document storage in the cloud and software such as Zoom and Slack had an edge during this crisis that will probably continue to grow once the pandemic ends.

The pandemic has also exposed the increasing schism between legal practitioners that are tech forward and those that are not in how they look for potential clients. The lockdown has meant attorneys and firms have not been able to rely on face to face meetings, events, conferences or traditional networking for conducting business development. Instead, this environment has meant adopting digital marketing strategies, utilizing tools like LinkedIn and using innovative online platforms such as Priori. Indeed, corporate legal departments that are members of CLOC are expected to follow a number of guiding principles, known as ‘The CLOC Core 12’. One of these encourages in-house teams to innovate, automate, and solve problems with technology. The idea behind this is to make in-house teams more receptive to alternative providers and tech-forward solutions. If contract attorneys, solos and boutique firms aren’t also thinking of utilizing tech-forward solutions to getting work from these in-house teams, they risk being left behind. Once this crisis ends, those who are tech forward will be able to capitalize on both traditional and new methods of business development, giving them wider reach and greater opportunity.

In 2018, I was lucky enough to interview Richard Susskind about the impact of technology on the legal profession. During our discussion he reaffirmed his famous 2013 pronouncement that the legal world would change more in the next twenty years than it had in the past two centuries. Nothing I’ve seen during my time at Priori has accelerated such rapid industry change as this COVID-19 pandemic. It has exacerbated the ‘more for less challenge’ faced by corporate legal departments and forced legal providers to be more flexible, resilient and efficient. In doing so, it has exposed a gulf between those who are tech forward and those who are not. As the world re-emerges from lockdown, this gulf looks set to grow.

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