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The COVID-19 impact on law firms and the legal industry – challenges and rising trends

Updated: May 10, 2023

By Amelie Chartton and Vanina Georgieva.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly helped us see that remote work is not only possible, but in many cases the preferred method of work for many. The typical 9-to-5, one hour lunch break, office day seems to be a strangely distant and vague memory. It becomes hard to imagine having to let go of the peaceful morning routine of stress-free coffee at home and comfortable robes during the otherwise stiff, in-office corporate meetings. Even though an increasing number of companies are beginning to welcome their employees at the office again, we cannot shake off the feeling that something is just not the same anymore and a lot of us rather work remotely, at least for the forceable future. As working from home becomes the norm for many, fixed places of work are anticipated to become less necessary, and more room is expected to open for a creative and flexible approach of doing business.

Shifting from office to remote work has resulted in a tremendous transformation in many fields, including in the legal industry. The new work-from-home conditions have forced the change of anything from lawyer productivity, deal making to growth opportunities. The transition to remote work for law firms has been a complex process. As they began relying more on emails, there has naturally been a higher risk for cyber scams, resulting in the necessity for cybersecurity training as the workforce was not protected by a centralized network anymore. Despite the fact that many law firms had cloud-based infrastructure to help remote employees even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the scale which was needed was not at place. Certain data or cyber policies were not present in order to support online work on a long-term basis. What was clearly needed was the adoption of new technologies at a speed and scale which was never seen before in the industry. Here is where the contradictory effect of the pandemic can be seen on firm innovation – even though there was a reduction of the tech budgets and some of the big projects were put on hold, transitioning to remote work had to be done with such urgency that it resulted in the legal industry evolving with faster rate than ever before. With the rising question of what the future holds, how and at what point law firms will eventually come back to the office, many wonder what the risks of remote work are on firm loyalty and mentorship. Yet, it is not only the location of the work that is changing but the nature of lawyers’ work. Virtual deal making, for instance, is expected to continue in some form as lawyers and their clients have come to appreciate how quick and cost reducing less travel is. [1]

We see that some law firms have announced that they will expect their employees to return to full time work in the office soon, however, such announcements have often seen a negative response as remote work seems to allow for a better work-life balance which has so far been a serious problem within the industry. This response has forced law firms to reevaluate their options and offer a more flexible approach to welcoming their employees back, perhaps even creating a hybrid in-office and online schedule. Of course, a serious concern among many is the issue of job security if they decide to remain working from home as well as the likelihood of reduced salary. So far, evidence cannot be found that law firms are considering a pay difference between in-house or at-office employees. [2]

Although the benefits of remote work are many, there are a number of ethical considerations within the legal industry which should be taken into account. For instance, when the in-person contact is limited and lawyers conduct their work through the use of technology, knowing the ethical rules can aid attorneys in carefully choosing their strategy for dealing with their practice. Good communication is a crucial aspect of the work of any lawyer, and they have the obligation to consistently update their clients regarding the status of their case.

Additionally, it is important to regularly consult with the client about the various ways through which their goals can be achieved. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when courts and tribunals issued various orders, it was the responsibility of lawyers to both understand and inform clients how court orders can influence their case. As in-person business is restricted, this includes informing the client what steps could be taken to achieve the client’s aim. The matter of confidentiality is also something that must be given extra attention with the rise of remote work for lawyers. The use of technology often becomes a matter of concern in a number of different ways. Along with data security, lawyers who are sharing computers with people who are not in their practice must be highly cautious and always maintain confidentiality. Lawyers are advised to pay attention to their surroundings before they discuss client matters over the phone and additionally, ensuring they are aware of who has access to read a chat or listen to a conversation. Attorney-client privilege must be maintained by lawyers who should always advise clients to take the aforementioned steps of precaution as well. [3]

Aside from this, however, there are several other factors which law firms and lawyers need to overcome before the law practice can safely be turned into full time remote work and, hopefully, one day into a digital nomad lifestyle. An important factor and potential issue for law firms are time zones. An attorney can now work from Australia, even if their law firm is based in London, yet, it is hardly realistic to expect them to begin work at 6pm and log off at 2am the next day. Therefore, it stands to logic that, law firms might need to consider placing a time zone limit on their digital nomad lawyers, in order to guarantee that clients get a proper service and employees work reasonable hours. Needless to say, tax becomes another complicated issue. If a lawyer works for a law firm in London but lives in Paris, the question where they will pay income tax naturally arises. Moreover, how long can they reside in another country can also become a concern. Luckily though, countries like Estonia are quickly discovering solutions to such problems. In 2020, Estonia introduced a digital nomad visa targeting digital nomads who’d like to work in the country for up to one year. Such developments are highly necessary and warmly welcomed as they offer a well-needed infrastructure for the change towards digital nomadism. [4]

Of course, an attorney working remotely as a digital nomad is a slightly more complicated task to achieve compared to other professions. Fortunately, at least in the European Union, lawyers do not need to worry whether they can practice in another member state. Under EU Directive 98/5/EC - Lawyers who qualify in one EU country are allowed to practice on a permanent basis in another under their home country professional title. The directive applies to EU nationals authorised to practise under the professional title of ‘lawyer’, but the system also extends to all nationals of European Economic Area countries and Switzerland. The process is straightforward, as those who would like to work in another EU state must register with the competent authorities of the host EU country.

In terms of the fields of activity, lawyers are allowed to give advice on the law of both home and host EU country, as well as on EU and international law. For activities relating to the representation or defence of a client in legal proceedings, lawyers who have qualified outside of the country in question may be required to work in conjunction with a local lawyer. [5]

So, it is safe to say that law firms and lawyers have had their fair share of difficulties over the past 2 years, however, courts have also faced a number of challenges during the pandemic. Many courthouses closed fully and others partially, while only dealing with very “urgent” cases. A report by OSCE and ODIHR from 2020 discussed the extent to which both court staff and judges have been able to work in person and virtually during this period. This has largely depended on the specific country’s response to the pandemic, the regulations implemented by authorities and lastly, the type of court and case they have had to deal with. As not all courthouses and staff members of the judiciary have been available, this has resulted in how cases have been prioritized and allocated. In certain countries, it became necessary for courts to share facilities among different courts like criminal and civil. The pandemic and its aftermath have had many consequences, the most obvious of which has been the fact that a very quick shift was needed to online work, in order to adapt to lockdowns and the requirements for physical distancing. Because of the nature of the pandemic and the quick adjustments that are necessary as a consequence of it, effective communication is needed within a very short period of time regarding, for instance, how to visit courts in person and when case hearings will be held remotely. Yet, on the positive side, the COVID-19 pandemic has stimulated countries to reform their justice systems and revived discussions about remote delivery and virtual justice. [6]

Nonetheless, despite the challenges, it appears that there are more positive traits stemming from the increased use of technology. In 2021, the Wolters Kluwer, Future Ready Lawyer Survey: Moving Beyond the Pandemic, addressed the ways the pandemic has influenced overall perceptions of technology, remote work, as well as change management. An important finding was that due to the pandemic, people’s value of technology has increased, and lawyers have begun seeing all the advantages it has to offer. It is now clear that solutions which rely on technology are crucial to business resilience. Furthermore, the survey showed that professionals in the legal industry view digital transformation as one of the main driving forces of improved performance, combined with higher productivity and efficiency. As the pandemic began, the majority of law firms had no preparation in the transition to remote work, which is why it comes as no surprise that nearly 80% of the survey respondents argued that greater importance of legal technology is a trend which will inevitably have an effect on their law firm. [7]

So, what other trends is the future of the law industry expected to see? A field which saw increased attention during the pandemic due to its value and return on investment was artificial intelligence content generation.

AI based tools are certainly not news on the market, but they began shifting from the hype phase to the actual adoption process because of the needs caused by the pandemic. Although law firms are not known for their quick incorporation of analytics-based decision making they are believed to further evolve with this technology in the future. Why analytics tools in particular? They offer a simple solution providing effective and cheap ways to identify trends and assess productivity. Undoubtedly, together with the traditional legal roles, it is believed that data analysts will become an essential part of law firms and remote legal departments. [8]




About the Authors

Amelie Chartton (l)

Originally from France, Amelie realized early on that she couldn't live in one place for too long. She did her Bachelor in International Management in Barcelona, Spain, to then do her MSc in Strategic Management in Vaasa, Finland. For about 10 years, she lived as a digital nomad, worked as a project manager, management consultant and latest as a scrum master.

After a few years of living abroad, Amelie moved to Stockholm in July 2020, for the main purpose of starting Digmak, a Legal Tech business, which would solve millions of people’s money and time."

Vanina Georgieva (r)

Vanina moved to Sweden to do her Bachelor degree in Political Science and is currently pursuing a MSc in International Affairs.

She is a digital nomad by heart and has lived in several cities in Sweden, also Ireland and Bulgaria. During her time abroad she has worked in the Bulgarian embassy in Ireland, as well as the European Commission. Currently she is a content writer for Digmak and is responsible for articles, news publications and media content creation.


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