Society is expected to significantly change in the post covid-19 world. The people, in general, have felt the strong impact of the pandemic on their daily lives and we expect many bankruptcies – most of those we have already seen are related to the tourism industry. Small and medium sized business have lost a notable share of their yearly turnover and a recession is foreseen in most countries. As a result, lawyers can expect that their clients – who were already looking to reduce their costs – will become even more price-conscious and that they will adapt their behavior to the latent sanitary risk of the Coronavirus.
This situation has required lawyers to digitize earlier than anticipated. They have implemented new ways of interacting with clients, exchanging files, preparing hearings. In parallel, they have organized collaborative teamwork from home. The profession appears to have benefited from the experience, with some conservative lawyers saying that they discovered a new world of opportunities.
Going forward, it seems necessary for lawyers to bank on their newly acquired insights in new technologies, because it is unlikely that the clients will want to go back to the traditional ways of doing things. Likewise, new health safety regulations are likely to change traditional ways of doing business and maintaining that traditional way of doing business may become financially unsustainable. How to adapt is a question for each firm to answer for itself – but it should be done in a customer-centric way.
This article explores the change process in the context of the post covid-19 world, how lawyers can integrate new technologies to their business and how then can organize their business around their clients. It will also make suggestions as to how lawyers can work collaboratively and how they can take advantage of their website to drive new business.
Law firms may have to reorganize and place the client at the center of their business model and follow customer-centricity principles, because costs are expected to increase and make the traditional way of providing legal services unsustainable. In this context, lawyer websites may become new assets of their business models.
Lawyers and online customer service hygiene rules, remote work and prospects for the post COVID-19 future
1.1 The situation is evolving - the current status
As individuals or companies, we gradually organize ourselves to carry out our tasks in the way that suits us best. And we improve our processes every day, so that we can deliver in accordance with our priorities. The way we work is neither optimal nor deficient in itself; it just suits us best.
To complete our tasks, we use and allocate our resources (time, availability of mind, money, teams, equipment) according to our priorities and criteria for allocating resources that are our own. In my experience, in law firms, these resource allocation criteria often include:
- Compliance with the rules governing the legal profession and codes of ethics;
- Finding new customers;
- Compliance with the contractual obligations, deadlines and other procedural rules;
- Time sheet and legal research;
- Cashing in bills.
However, these criteria for allocating resources do not leave much time for staying informed of market developments, carrying out customer satisfaction surveys or discovering new technological tools that are coming to market.
For example, a lawyer will often choose to have a client lunch - even if it is not a priority - rather than receiving a representative who wants to offer a documentation management solution. Often, the lawyer will even cancel the appointment with the representative to take the lunch. This is not a mistake - it is a decision that prioritizes resources for customers over the modernization of the law firm.
Lawyers' priorities often allocate few resources to customer satisfaction, firm modernization and monitoring market trends.
The result is a growing gap between client expectations and legal services offered by lawyers. Thus, for many years, there has been a stagnation of the law market [PDF]:1:
"In terms of demand growth for law firm services (...) stagnation continued in 2019, with demand growth virtually flat from the preceding year."
And this was the situation before covid-19. It seems that this situation is bound to deteriorate after covid. The traditional way of operating notably appears to be incompatible with hygiene requirements to block the spread of coronavirus.
1.2 Our Customers are Evolving - Trends in Other Industries and Continuous Improvement
Each industry, each company, each business unit and each team have their own criteria for allocating resources. But, contrary to the legal industry, most industries appear to have integrated continuous improvement to their criteria.
The continuous improvement process allows, in summary, to define performance indicators for the company and to measure the evolution of these indicators. These reveal their importance and usefulness notably when the company wants to test a new idea or service on its customers or when it wants to improve its performance in general and can help detect issues in the business early so that action can be taken.
In the case of a law firms, one can imagine measuring - for example - the following indicators:
- Customer satisfaction - via a satisfaction form
- Success rate of the firm in litigation
- The firm’s success rate in negotiations
- Rate of invoices paid by clients on time and ratio between the amount finally received and the amount of the initial invoice
- Rate of clients who will use the firm’s services more than once
- Speed of processing of a client request - how long does a client have to wait on average before receiving a reply from their lawyer?
- How many customers are referred by each satisfied customer?
- Firm visibility and customer feedback online and on social media – the so-called “e-reputation”.
Regardless of the performance indicators chosen by the firm, it is essential to monitor them constantly, as they lead to better business. The firm can:
- Detect detrimental / positive trends
- Take appropriate actions or make the appropriate decisions
- Understand where the areas of improvement in the firm lie
- Monitor the impact of decision or the return on investment for new service offers
Continuous improvement is about continuously seeking to improve performance indicators in line with the firm’s strategic objectives.
This is important because customers are constantly evolving and getting used to other ways of consuming. The internet giants, for instance, are investing heavily in customer satisfaction and research on customer behavior. Thus, their products are often the most attractive and easy to consume for customers. The trends defined by GAFAM and other major internet platforms are often followed by most market players. Thus, online supermarkets display products following the same codes as Amazon and Facebook's "thumb up like" has spread across most online platforms.
Customers gradually embraced this environment, the associated information layouts, and its consumption patterns. They expect to be able to read reviews from other customers, to book/buy directly online, manage their personal data and have a user account.
If the legal industry is not compatible with all these evolutions, it is certainly compatible with some of them; it is up to each firm to determine which tools are relevant to its business and its commercial objectives.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the criteria for allocating resources were an obstacle to the evolution of law firms. Few resources were allocated to measuring the performance of the firm using KPIs, let alone to implementing an effective KPI management system.
However, this was called into question by the covid-19. Indeed, compliance with professional, regulatory, and contractual rules has forced lawyers to consider new technologies.
1.3 Lawyers evolve – Home office became necessary due to covid-19
Whatever the predictive model, it is likely that the covid-19 pandemic is not about to die out. Most models predict that Covid will still linger in 2022. Social distancing may therefore continue to apply and gradually enter our behavioral habits and, consequently, home office as well – be it on an on/off basis.
As a result, some large companies have begun to reassess their need for real estate: "According to a survey of 300 companies worldwide by real estate consultancy giant Cushman and Wakefield in April, 89% of them believe that the use of remote work will continue beyond the pandemic." 2
Many lawyers have thus also adapted and worked more often from home. As the courts did not stop with the pandemic, lawyers were forced to explore technological tools in order to meet their contractual and regulatory obligations.
The unexpected effect of covid-19 was to integrate technology into the resource allocation criteria of law firms.
For law firms, there are several benefits to this development, such as the opportunity to reduce costs by reducing the size of office surface. This opportunity is significant, because every company generally seeks to reduce its costs to remain competitive.
Thus, a large law firm following a sustaining innovation strategy focuses on very high quality of service for high net-worth clients will have a cost structure and an business model quite different from those of a specialized boutique law firm.
Nevertheless, each of them can address several factors that could influence its cost structure and - consequently - its profitability. For example, the firm can determine whether:
- its records can be fully scanned to avoid physical storage;
- it primarily provide services on the Internet or at the customer's office and therefore no longer requires meeting rooms;
- employees and associates need to be physically present all week or not - some prefer to work remotely to avoid interruptions;
- the standing of its office is in line with the demands of its customers: do the customers agree to pay more for highstanding, on the contrary, would they refuse to pay a surplus?
All these questions lead the firms to place the focus on the customers, by making them the center of attention. This reflects well the concept of "Customer-centricity" 3.
Being customer centric automatically places the customer’s satisfaction back in the resource allocation criteria of the law firm and promises a better commercial future for the firm.
Being customer-centric requires the ability to constantly measure and improve performance against strategic objectives, amongst which customer satisfaction.
2.1 Hygiene rules are likely to be costly and make traditional services more complex to provide
Serving a post-covid customer will require accommodation. Physical contacts expected to be permanently reduced and the healthconscious customers should also favor legal service providers who prevent them from travelling and exposing themselves to catching the virus.
Regulations, on the other hand, are driving a significant change in the management of the law firms and their operating costs. For example, in the Swiss Plan for Businesses that includes office work and casual contact with clients [PDF] 4, the following hygiene measures should be implemented:
- Upon arrival, clients wash their hands with soap and water. Provide an opportunity to wash hands with soap or, if not possible, hand sanitizer. Inform clients.
- Client can keep a two-meter distance between them. Do not set up a waiting area, or install chairs spaced two meters apart and condemn seats on the benches with colored tape.
- Do not touch client items (e.g. do not hang their jackets).
- If possible, leave the doors open so that they do not need to be touched.
- People must avoid touching surfaces and objects.
- Remove unnecessary items that customers may touch, such as magazines and documents in waiting rooms and common areas (such as coffee places and kitchens).
- Prefer contactless payment.
- Separate the different areas: crossing areas, work areas and waiting areas. Indicate the distance to be followed by ground markings or colored tape. If necessary, clearly indicate the distance pathways and marks with colored tape.
- Determine the number of people who may be present in the firm (staff and clients) so that a distance of two meters can always be maintained.
- Ask clients to make an appointment before visiting the firm.
- If possible, use digital means of communication (e.g. telephone, video conferencing) to hold meetings or interviews.
- Ensure that a distance of two meters is maintained in the meeting rooms and limit the total number of staff to one person for about 4 m2. Condemn or remove seats in meeting rooms to respect distances.
- Provide alternative opportunities for interaction for vulnerable clients (e.g., telephone interview, representation).
- Display official hygiene measures on each entrance door.
- Inform clients that sick people should be placed in self-isolation, in accordance with official prescriptions.
Thus, not only are the traditional physical meetings at the firm expected to decrease, but their cost is expected to increase significantly.
Health authorities may choose to visit the firm to assess compliance with health regulations.
Therefore, firms will also have to consider implementing complex processes for clients and staff, enforcing frequent hand washing policies, maintaining stocks of soap and hydroalcoholic gel, dealing with the likely frequent interruptions of work, etc. It should be noted that this cost assessment does not consider the increased risk to the firm’s staff of itself contracting covid-19 and being unavailable for work at a potentially sensitive time.
It should be noted that these rules will be difficult to implement in some smaller structures, thus exposing more lawyers and clients.
These requirements, and the cost of implementing them, combined with the associated health risk, should lead firms to digitize earlier than expected and rethink their services, with a focus on providing online services.
2.2 Online customer service - what to offer?
Thinking about customer-service in a customer-centric way should lead the firm to ask how the clients can complete each of the tasks necessary to request, receive and pay for legal services.
The answer to this question depends primarily on the strategic objectives of the firm and its performance indicators. But we can give some examples of tasks that the client might want to complete online:
- How do I make an appointment?
- How do I send a document?
- How do I conduct an interview with the customer and employees?
- How do you assess a case internally with the team and offer a debrief to the client?
- How do I prepare the client for a hearing?
- How do you keep the client informed of the progress of the case?
This is where the firm’s website can play a lead role. Many services can be delivered to the client through the firm’s website, which can become part of the firm’s business model. Personally, I consider that a website must be designed to drive business to the firm.
Alongside the website, tools such as Jitsi 5 (for video conferences). We can also digitize customer records, via a cloud service, in accordance with the applicable security standards and use collaborative platforms to work remotely and coordinate the team’s efforts.
Investing in technology appears more warranted today and can help lawyers to modernize their offer, reduce their costs and fight the stagnation of the legal market.
In addition, it is worth noting that several projects exist to digitize national courts, which is also expected to have a strong impact on the digitalization of firms and processes. This seems to be a good reason to start this modernization work already.
It does not seem unnecessary to offer some advice to help organize work remotely. Here is a summary of those that I think are most important:
- Working with goals: The staff will often deliver better results if they have been set clear goals to achieve. Example: Drafting a letter for a client; preparing a draft rejoinder, conducting legal research on a subject.
- Each goal must be associated with a deadline: the staff must know when each of the goals is due.
- Clarify the criteria for evaluating the work: it is important for the employee to understand which criteria will be used to evaluate the work. The aim here is to avoid unnecessary iterations or unnecessary work. Example: work on the substance, simple formatting, implementing the agreed strategy, layout not necessary at this stage, …
- Using a goal tracking tool: To have an overview of the progress of the work, a collaborative management tool can help - many tools are available on the internet, but a simple Outlook calendar or Excel sheet can do the trick.
- Empowering the staff: When the staff works from home, their reality and environment are different. For example, they may have domestic emergencies or need to deal with a kid’s tantrum. Empowering the employee means considering that the work will be delivered on time and not checking in every 15 minutes. If the work requires milestone reviews, then these should be placed in the goal tracking tool and agreed to with the staff. If the work is delivered on time, it is not necessary to know what the staff is doing during the day. It is only important that he or she is available at the agreed times and that they are responsive in the event of an emergency.
- Prioritizing goals: When goals are set, it is important to agree with the staff what goals can be completed by which date. Delivery times are ideally mutually agreed, without prejudice to time limitations or other court deadlines. Indeed, it is often counterproductive to force a delivery date upon the staff. They know their workload better and know their work capacity better. Setting deadlines and priorities with the staff by mutual agreement helps to empower the staff and make them accountable for compliance with the deadline.
- Using collaborative tools: There are many tools on the internet that help a team to work together on a project: secure clouds, project management, document management, document version management, task prioritization, workflow management, etc. These tools help to better track the progress of a project (i.e. a set of goals) and to detect bottlenecks.
- Secure file sharing: it is highly recommended to ensure that file sharing is secure - sending emails is often not considered safe. It is advisable to use a dedicated service.
- Clarify roles: Everyone needs to know who is responsible for what. Therefore, roles should be clearly defined to ensure fluid interactions and to prevent the team from stepping on each other’s feet.
- Continuous improvement: It is likely that the first tests will be frustrating; indeed, getting used to a new way of working takes time. However, the team will gradually refine its processes to make the initial model more efficient. Beware, however: some issues, such as security, should not be subject to regression.
Each firm has its own reality, organization, structure, resources and priorities. However, it seems clear that each will be impacted - positively or negatively - by the pandemic and the resulting societal evolution. The purpose of this article was to explore the avenues available to firms and contribute to the global reflection.
The key point for the future of the profession is, in my view, that the traditional way of operating may become more expensive and less acceptable to customers -- this was already the case before the pandemic given the stagnation of the law market despite the growing economy.
My modest proposal is to take the opportunity to rethink legal services and focus them on the client’s needs, to rethink the way firms deliver services and to make the necessary changes to the firm’s way of operating by exploring in particular the benefits of a powerful website, collaborative tools and digitalization in general.
My experience in the field of digitization would tend to show that it takes time for a team to adapt to new ways of working, work smoothly and feel comfortable. Even more importantly, it takes time for a firm to understand its target market, to adapt its services and to better advise its clients.
The more comfortable the team is with the tools and the more it understands and can influence its KPIs, the better it knows its clients and the better it can advise them. Starting early means taking a lead that will be difficult for the competition to catch up.