The COVID-19 pandemic has both fractured and consolidated a variety of businesses in a variety of sectors, creating uncertainty and opportunity. The one constant has been the need to transform to face the new normal of remote work and distancing, and to do so in record time.
Surprising as it may seem to some given its traditionalist reputation, the legal sector is among those that have moved quickly to join the transformation. Many law firms were already ahead of the curve when the pandemic hit in terms of technology. The bigger question relates to office space, long a sign of a firm’s prestige.
For what might seem forever, large, imposing offices were de rigueur for law firms. With the onslaught of COVID-19, many are now questioning whether there continues to be a real need for this massive outlay given the success of working from home. The answer appears to be a resounding no. Even pre-COVID, downsizing was starting to creep into the minds of many legal executives. In 2019, firms that signed new leases or renewals decreased square footage by 10.6% on average, according to Cushman & Wakefield.
“I think everyone is looking long term at their space needs because there is going to be a greater willingness to allow remote working,” said Gary Barnes, managing shareholder of Baker Donelson in an interview with Focus: Atlanta. “I think this will evolve but our firm is already starting to implement study groups to establish the future parameters of remote working. Once those decisions are made, we need to evaluate how this impacts the space we need.”
Technology is a big part of the equation that has made remote work a viable option for Atlanta’s firms, many of which, like Troutman Pepper, the firm created through a merger between Troutman Sanders and Pepper Hamilton and finalized in early 2020, see remote work as a staple throughout the rest of the year, at least. “We do not anticipate being back in the office in any real way. Technology will continue to grow in importance as people try to stay connected and navigate what the new normal looks like. All law firms will struggle with the ‘new normal’ and will need to be flexible in how that looks,” said Steve Lewis, chairman of Troutman Pepper.
In a survey by Lexology, 76% of lawyers predict that the increasing importance of technology will be the top trend going forward. Troutman Pepper, for example, was already leveraging technology pre-pandemic with its eMerge subsidiary that focuses on electronic discovery. “eMerge has seen an explosion of activity in the last few months since courts have been closed,” Lewis said. “This impacts the litigation practice, but eMerge has been busy with the remainder of the discovery process. Technology has become not just something that comes out on special occasions but something essential that contributes to our daily activities.”
In a 2019 Future Ready Lawyer Survey, respondents were categorized as Technology Leaders or Transitioning in terms of their technology use. Of Technology Leaders, 62% reported an increase in profitability over the year prior, while this number was just 39% for Transitioning firms.
While some in the legal sector have thrived on this new technology, state and federal courts have moved at a different pace, says Baker Donelson’s Barnes. “I think the federal courts have done a good job at adjusting to telephone and video hearings, in part because in the bankruptcy world, telephonic hearings have been used for a long time,” he told Focus: Atlanta. “In contrast, state courts have been a little slower to adapt to telephone and video hearings, though we are starting to see more of that now.”
Whatever the outcome of the pandemic, law firms in Atlanta have already moved into the future, transforming and adapting with the times.