Edge International

The Law Firm Technology Landscape Post-Covid: Part Three

Chris Bull and Peter Owen

In the space of just a few months in 2020 law firms, along with many other organisations, have adapted to a very different way of collaborating and communicating.  With their people scattered across a constellation of remote working locations and with a vacuum created by the impossibility of in-person meetings, new ways of engaging have emerged and become commonplace.   Video has emerged from its relatively minor role pre-COVID to become a critical application.  In this third and final part of our technology focused series, co-authored with our expert technology partners at Lights-On Consulting,  we take this dramatic shift in the way lawyers collaborate and communicate as our start-point for a look at the many areas of law firm operations which could be transformed by the response to COVID.

Edge International author and Principal Chris Bull consults with legal businesses in the space between strategy, transformational change and operational efficiency.  Deploying and leveraging technology is at the heart of this practice and Chris is one of the three co-founders of The Intuity Alliance, a group specifically focused on cutting-edge advice legal industry IT, innovation and LegalTech.  Fellow founder Peter Owen leads Lights-On Consulting, one of the most experienced legal IT advisory firms in the market.  Lights-On have produced an extensive and impressive multi-part overview of IT ‘considerations for the post-lockdown law firm’ and Peter and our friends at Lights-On have worked with Chris to summarise in these EIC articles the biggest changes firms will face in the post-COVID world and recommend how firm leadership should be planning and acting to address the opportunities and challenges.

How law firms work has changed forever in areas well beyond agile and remote working

Our previous article in this series took a closer look at how the COVID crisis has provided the trigger for dramatic and, we believe, permanent changes in the fundamentals of how lawyers work.  In particular, that transformation is characterised by, first, a rebalancing in the location of work, with hybrid home and office working becoming an established part of the standard firm model.  And, secondly, by the need for both internal and client-facing processes that rely on paper and face-to-face interaction to be digitised.

Beyond these core questions of how legal work is done, the use of technology in a whole spectrum of other areas of the firm has been given a jolt by the COVID crisis.  This third part of the series takes a look at some of those other changes and opportunities, beginning with the most high profile and ‘in your face’ (very literally) implication of working through COVID; the emergence of collaboration and video communication platforms as one of our most business-critical tools.

Has video killed the radio (voice) star?

Back in early March 2020, maybe a few of us had used a video collaboration app called Zoom a couple of times and it had a bit of buzz around it; not least because there was a free-to-use restricted time version available.  Others were advocates of similar apps and they were used, from time-to-time, for multi-user calls.  Microsoft Teams was beginning to get rolled out across law firms, though many IT departments were in ‘we have the licences but won’t be ready to roll-out until later….’ mode.  Face-to-face meetings were still standard and the phone, especially mobile, was the most common medium for short 1to1 calls.  Video conferencing was still, in many places, something you only did in a conference room with multiple others.  In thousands of firms around the world each desk had a fixed line phone handset dedicated to the person whose desk that was.

Folks – that was just 6 months ago but it is a world already receding into memory and that you will never see again (warning: if this is, in fact, the world you now find yourself returning to over the coming months get yourself the hell out of there: you are living in some period drama re-enactment of old time lawyering!).

We have just witnessed an unforeseen and sudden hyperdrive leap forward into a very different communications culture where a big premium is put, in the absence of meeting in-person, on seeing the people you’re speaking to and the infrastructure to make that easy and attractive is widely available.  As firms return to some form of office working and settle into a new way of working, this has big implications for tech and operational support.  We’ve broken down some of those implications here:

Room video conferencing (VC) – on return to the office people will naturally expect to use your meeting room-based VC seamlessly combined with single user “Desktop VC”, probably connecting up with many people working at home or clients in their own workplace. Is what you have today compatible and do your user guides include how to do this? You need to test the various combination of set-ups and should produce new guidelines now for in-office and remote users on how to operate and manage hybrid VC set-ups.

Desktop video – with maybe only 25-30% of the workforce in the office, desktop VC is likely to be in permanently high demand for internal and external use. Usage in office can have some big differences compared to home VC.  At home, people may have used the laptop’s own microphones, speakers and built in web cam from a relatively private room, but that may not be appropriate for the office due to nuisance noise or confidentiality issues. Further complications come if the office set-up differs – for example the office-based laptop is docked and the lid closed.  Screen-top webcams and noise cancelling headsets are likely to be required for successful desktop VC in the office and yet may be in short supply globally.

In addition to equipment and set-up, the swapping from one configuration to another, as staff switch from home to work, may be an issue and will have to be tested and training guides produced. If short supply issues mean you are forced into a mixed technology set-up, this could quickly become complicated and hard to support.  It is not easy to get comms working seamlessly in this scenario, so firms should be chasing down equipment availability with suppliers now.

Office internet infrastructure from an infrastructure point of view, the set-up of VC and internet remote access is fundamentally different at home than in the office. Ironically, if you add up all your staff’s home broadband internet bandwidth it is likely to be way in excess of what you have in your own buildings. New, extensive levels of VC use in the office may cripple your internet connection if you’re not careful.  Firms are advised to “do the math” and seek options, costs and lead times now to be ready for heightened use of VC in the workplace making much greater demands on internet connectivity.

Some firms only provide meeting room WiFi . A combination of social distancing and the need to use desktop VC may place increased pressure on your WiFi and extend high performance WiFi throughout the office. In many buildings, the WiFi network is now taking over as the primary network with the latest equipment providing gigabit throughput and support for IP-voice and video. Senior management should know what its infrastructure is capable of. To put it simply, your office infrastructure may be a US freeway with lots of lanes or it may be a single-track English country track that is just about to contend with summer holiday traffic levels – it’s best to know which one you are in advance!

Product choice – there is no doubt that the pressure will be on for a longer-term investment in the strategic collaboration tools and video platforms that are enabling this cultural phenomenon.  There are considerable differences between the available products. Some are obvious: take the limit on numbers of simultaneous video streams – Microsoft Teams belatedly managed to roll-out the increase from four to nine people mid-lockdown.   But other, equally critical but less visible differences exist. Careful consideration is necessary to choose your future product portfolio. Some areas of consideration are:

  • Use-Case – it should go without staying, but what you want to use the tools for will govern what tools you select. Products differ widely with some being strong for webinars and others better for file collaboration and 1:1 VCs. There is a perception that all tools do all those tasks but, in reality, each of them has some clear strengths and, perhaps more importantly, real weaknesses; so know what you want to use it for
  • Integrations and APIs – what you want to integrate with the collaboration product will affect the choice of product; the tight integration of Microsoft Teams with the Office suite is an obvious example, but it is sensible to explore the full range of integration on offer
  • Cost – be wary about usage costs. They can rocket depending on various use-cases and licensing methods. These vary enormously between products and can only become obvious once you are up and running and incurring monthly usage bills with the product rolled out across your firm
  • Telephony – some products lean towards voice (and therefore could potentially replace your previous telephony system) and others towards PC-based collaboration. Most firms want a product that can provide a combination. This is probably the time to abandon your attachment to physical phone systems and handsets, if you’re still there, and move to soft phones, headsets and integration with existing collaboration software and with mobile devices.  But this will depend on your existing phone investment, contracts and budgets
  • Skills – managing these technologies on a big video call whilst also trying to focus on a message and delivery can be hard. New “broadcaster” skills will be required for presenters and hosts, but also for admin support in complex meetings who will handle the more technical elements of the session (such as Q&A, raising hands, note taking). Some lawyers already struggle with PowerPoint presentations so combining this with broadcast technology may need a little more support to be effective
  • Reputation – don’t lose sight of public and client perception; some of your clients may block or actively mandate certain products. certain products. It may pay dividends to check with your larger clients before making a big selection decision.  However, don’t be swayed by press or advertising hype; the whole area of working from home, video comms and collaboration is subject to all sorts of rumour and myth right now and your decisions need to be founded in evidence and your own firm’s needs, not some stranger’s opinion
  • Hidden technology – an example of this is mobile versions of some collaboration products using the phone’s GPS to be able to track location by default. Your IT team need to be very alert to these settings and features, many of which may also have privacy and data law (e.g. Europe’s GDPR rules) implications
  • Policy and protocol – VC tools can come with a raft of other collaboration functions such as chat, presence, file exchange etc. What governance is there around the use of them and is it fit for prolonged use embedded in the working culture? Law firms have worked hard to control documents and enforce governance around files and document management systems (DMS), yet some firms may have paid little attention to locking down features in these newer tools or developing policies in the rush to get lawyers on-line remotely.

Not necessarily a ‘top 5’ technology investment decision in the pre-COVID world your firms choice of collaboration product(s) now looks like a critical one, which could have a major impact on your future way of working and may even become the keystone technology in your client service delivery armoury.

 The next digital, agile model will change many other parts of your organisation

Basically, we are into the realm of predictions and prophecy here – albeit, we like to think, we only do informed predictions.  We have tended to focus most of our analysis so far, understandably, on the core working use of tech by lawyers in the post-COVID world.  Looking beyond that to the way in which other parts of the law firm environment will change, we expect to see a host of other parts of the firm evolve as a direct result of the stimulus of the COVID period:

An overdue renaissance of training effectiveness – caught between over-busy, chargeable hour fixated lawyers, reducing attention spans and uninspiring training delivery models, imparting new skills and knowledge to experienced people in law firms has been in a rut for years.  The partial attempts to embrace online, e-learning and ‘just-in-time’ methods haven’t made enough of a dent in that challenge.  How do we continue to train and develop our people, not just in IT tools, but in legal practice?  Technology can be an enabler to achieve a new dynamic model for training, exploiting the collaboration and comms technologies we have all just installed and rapidly got used to; video, remote collaboration, machine learning and smart knowledge management tools.  The opportunity to reinvent legal training is there as it has never been before, but it will be easy for firms to overlook it amidst some many other priorities.

Centralised, relocated and outsourced back and middle office services – hardly a new trend, even in the relatively slow to adopt legal world.  We have seen various waves of outsourcing, lower cost location Shared Service Centres and managed service contracts over the last 10 or so years.  One truism often repeated during this period has been that the hardest part is the initial relocation of any service – IT support, accounting, knowledge management, typing – away from the lawyers/internal customers.  That’s the point at which we typically see ‘tissue rejection’ and a battle over whether the restructuring goes any further.  Once over this hump with service being provided from somewhere else for a period, process reengineering and further outsourcing have proved easier to implement.

Well, we have just been through an enforced, no-blame moment where almost all of these internal services are being provided from a remote, non-office location and face-to-face contact between lawyers and support, including secretarial, has almost disappeared.  With so many firms looking to reap the benefit of a more agile model by reducing their real estate footprint and responding to recessionary conditions with restructuring, the stars do appear to be aligned for another, more pervasive wave of centralisation and outsourcing of all kinds of support and administration.

Remote project management – both volumes of projects and demand for project resource are likely to be high over the next year.  Managing the project portfolio and inter-related strategic programmes of work (such as the migration to a hybrid / agile model) will be critical.  Doing this remotely can be difficult and project managers with limited experience may struggle. You will need to find different ways to deliver projects, train people, apply control and maintain effective project team communication.  Some projects just need people onsite and working in close proximity and the project portfolio will need to be re-shuffled if this remains impossible for an extended period.

Office 365 – firms already using this in anger and not just as a licensing approach have benefited from the flexibility it affords and licensing will mean that products such as Teams will make Microsoft 365 even more attractive. Office 365 migration is a complex project and not one that should be undertaken without experienced input.  There is a danger, in the rush to implement, that too many firms will underestimate the complexity of this environment and the depth of understanding and careful planning required.  Leaders should pay attention to Office 365 projects and not assume they will be quick, easy or painless to deliver.

Business Continuity Planning (BCP) gets real – for many firms COVID has been the first real-life test of at least part of their BCP and, for a few, it may have forced the creation of the first real draft! COVID has demonstrated the key role that IT plays in keeping a business moving and the importance of solid yet flexible infrastructure during unplanned disruption.  Whether this involves simply formalising the adopted plan, dry-run testing it with newly experienced eyes or identifying and implementing new infrastructure, it is important you set time aside to do this now and involve the owners and leaders of the firm. Now is the time that owners will be most receptive to accepting their accountability and involvement in what can sometimes be seen as a support department’s domain.

Sustainability and environment – with restrictions imposed by governments around the world and an understandable reluctance to undertake any travel unless absolutely necessary, both international and national travel for face-to-face meetings has been replaced by video conferencing tools. If there has ever been a time for a firm to embrace sustainability-enhancing technology and low carbon ways of working, it is now.  This will require drive from the top and governance around implementation and management in order for it to embed fully; only the best-led and most determined firms will truly achieve this and head towards what should be the net carbon neutral goal.

Admin processes – how well did your admin processes stand up to the tests of home working? Many HR, Admin and Finance processes may have suffered from lack of electronic based workflow.  Lockdown will have revealed the effectiveness of your digital workflows better than any review or debate has done.  Addressing digitisation of those processes that didn’t work seamlessly, including a focus on digitally handling approvals and notifications, will be critical to meet the standards of the 2020s agile law firm.

Virtual introductions – new client relationships may begin virtually far more often in the future. New techniques and skills are going to be required to be able to put the best virtual foot forward: reading the room and eye contact don’t work well on VC so do your staff need training on ‘effective Video conferencing’ for engaging new business, closing deals, pushing projects along?

Recruitment and onboarding of new staff – during lockdown, more law firms have interviewed candidates by video. This was already being used by large organisations before COVID and, as in so many other areas, we anticipate a dramatic acceleration of take-up now.  It can be a highly effective and efficient process, which also tests applicants’ ability to work in a digital environment.  Irrespective of changes to social distancing guidelines, video interviews are an approach worth exploring to help streamline recruitment processes.  Your initial engagement with potential recruits will also demonstrate the extent to which your firm has successfully balanced the efficient / digital and human / personal.

 Conclusion: The Agile Law Firm

This three-part series co-authored with Peter Owen from Lights-On Consulting has taken a look at what next for law firms from the perspective of technology change.

As anyone who is used to looking at the impact of technology on legal practice will be well aware, the implications extend far beyond the boundaries of ‘IT’ to touch every aspect of and every person in the firm.  Responsibilities for leveraging the competitive opportunities arising post-COVID as well as for ensuring the firm handles the multiple challenges and risks does not lie with the IT function only either.  We have produced this series at Edge International because we believe these are issues which demand immediate, Board and Partnership level attention and decision-making.

We are now focusing a lot of our time, research and insight into this emerging Agile Law Firm model and we welcome contributions, ideas and the opportunity to engage on agile strategies right across the legal marketplace.

Further Reading: the full Lights-On papers summarised in this article are available to read on the Lights-On Consulting website:

Thanks also to Lights-On consultant Christiaan Frickel for his great contributions to this piece.

The Law Firm Technology Landscape Post-Covid: Part Two

Chris Bull and Peter Owen

It is imperative now for law firms to confront and engage with the permanently changed technology environment we will operate within in the post-COVID world.  Planning and action need to start today, with opportunities to be seized and risks to be mitigated.  Part two of our three-part technology-focused series, co-authored with our expert technology partners at Lights-On Consulting, focuses on this critical business agenda and asks all law firm leaders to make it a priority for their firm.

Edge International author and Principal Chris Bull consults with legal businesses in the space between strategy, transformational change and operational efficiency.  Deploying and leveraging technology is at the heart of this practice and Chris is one of the three co-founders of The Intuity Alliance, a group specifically focused on cutting-edge advice legal industry IT, innovation and LegalTech.  Fellow founder Peter Owen leads Lights-On Consulting, one of the most experienced legal IT advisory firms in the market.  Lights-On have produced an extensive and impressive multi-part overview of IT ‘considerations for the post-lockdown law firm’ and Peter and our friends at Lights-On have worked with Chris to summarise in these EIC articles the biggest changes firms will face in the post-COVID world and recommend how firm leadership should be planning and acting to address the opportunities and challenges.

The post-COVID law firm technology universe is emerging more clearly: now is the time to plan and act

As restrictions are lifted and economies reopen, many factors come into play and affect firms that are emerging from a ‘state of emergency’ remote working model. There is a lot of talk about lessons learned – but have you actually identified and documented them?  And plenty of new opportunities for better working practices and technological improvements mentioned – but have you worked out how to capitalise and embed them for the longer term?  Meantime, alongside this big picture stuff sits a long list of IT “tidy up” tasks that have built up over the months blindsided by the need to support remote operations.

The big opportunity is digital transformation

Just as any business continuity event presents an opportunity to identify and then address areas previously overlooked or under-resourced, so will the pandemic. In the previous first part of this short series we focused some attention on acceleration of the move towards truly digital, ‘paperlite’ law firms.  That opportunity is, if anything, coming into sharper relief as the COVID-impacted period extends and as organisations initiate some partial return to offices.  Challenges are emerging and those practice areas which have only just managed in the remote working lockdown are becoming more visible.  That final push towards true digital transformation may begin, once again, to seem tantalisingly just out of reach for even tech-smart firms.  Our view is that would be a mis-reading of the position and the opportunity; if ever there was a time to seize the day and switch to an emphatically digital road map, this is it.

There remains some residual reluctance around the legal world to accept the necessity to drive out paper and embrace digital working, although that has become less common and more muted since COVID struck.  We don’t have the space to embark upon a full dissection of the pros and cons in this short piece but at the big picture level, firm leaders need to ask themselves why they would not prioritise a change that will make their operations:

  •           Cheaper
  •           Faster
  •           Greener
  •           More compliant
  •           More responsive to changing client expectations
  •           More agile & flexible
  •           Collaborative
  •           Less demanding of real estate and administrative support.

Some key components need to come together to move your firm up through the gears to speed up and secure your migration to a digital model.  Progressing each of these in tandem is not an easy job; shifting to a digital model is not just ‘going to happen’, even with the big nudge we have just had.  This is not the remit of IT alone either; it will take backing from the Board, Senior Management Team and owners of the business to achieve, together with a whole package of technology to match the ease, flexibility and portability of paper.

This isn’t an exhaustive list but those key components that need to be aligned to realise your digital transformation opportunity will include:

  1. Digital signatures – deployed internally and externally with clients wherever they can be
  2. Collaborative, accessible document management application
  3. Document and Task automation, and data integration between applications
  4. Electronic client communications and interface as the default, with clients incentivised to use digital channels to communicate with you
  5. Scanning and digital distribution of the residual inbound post that is still received (possibly centralised or outsourced)
  6. Digital Matter File as the default store of record for compliance and finance purposes
  7. Seamless internal communications and collaboration tools connecting offices, homes, mobile workers
  8. Entirely digital internal finance and administrative processes
  9. Personal IT equipment that maximises effectiveness of digital working – including laptops, mobile devices, dual / larger screens, mobile device(s), headsets, cameras
  10. Digital working and personal effectiveness skills and support

You need a post-lockdown tech clear-up: it’s not sexy but it is clever

Amnesty many firms may find that tech-savvy lawyers have found their own innovative ways of collaborating and sharing with other parties and working remotely offline. They may have even tried out the odd hack here and there, courtesy of the internet, to work around some of the governance that makes life difficult when remote. How do you discover and assess these changes or new systems and applications hiding in the shadows? What do you do about them once you have found them? What compromises have been legitimately made to get people working and what needs to be done to close the gaps? We have seen law firms giving temporary local administrator rights on laptops under the pressure of having to deliver and these loopholes will have to be closed. One option is an amnesty to IT as well as to end users to uncover what needs fixing, securing or adopting.

Security compliance – we are aware that some security questionnaires issued by law firm clients since lockdown now include questions specifically relating to the relaxation of access controls, policies and data management during the crisis. Are you confident that your current data security posture and threat landscape are appropriate for your business and existing customer contractual commitments?

Those ‘business as usual’ issues from March haven’t gone away – software company declarations made well in advance of COVID-19 still stand and some software, including a number of legal PMS applications, remains end of life or is heading there quickly. Microsoft has not extended all of its end of support dates either.  Amongst the exciting new tech enablement projects and post-COVID enhancements, there is the reality that end of life practice management systems and other backlogged maintenance activity still need attending to.  All of this awaits the CIO and their team as the firm returns to some semblance of normality and leadership needs to genuinely understand the expanded workload and revisit prioritization and resourcing.

Data sprawl – key records of decisions, advice and matter related information may now reside in a variety of sources – WhatsApp, Zoom, LinkedIn messenger, SMS, Dropbox, Box etc. It is expected that policies and procedures will have been put in place by your firm to manage this but, if not, then your firm should consider how to reconstruct the single electronic file in a clean-up that is as much a Risk & Compliance as an IT essential.

The equipment dilemma – now you are supporting two (or more) high-performance working environments

We realise that not every firm is expecting to emerge from this period with a permanent hybrid / agile working model.  But most mid and large firms we work with certainly are, as we explored in part one of this series.  That will mean a workforce operating flexibly – and often unpredictably – between office, home and mobile locations.  The comment du jour we hear right now, especially from senior lawyers, is “I think 2, maybe 3, days a week working at home would be perfect for me”.  Well, that means that a lot of your busiest people are looking to split their time pretty much equally between office and home. That demands that they can work really well, and connect seamlessly with colleagues and clients, from both locations.

Equipment – If your staff took equipment home at the start of lockdown, procedures for either replacement (to have home and office working possible without further equipment moves) or recovery of the equipment back to the office will be required. Some firms that have deep enough pockets are taking the decision to duplicate equipment and maintain a full home working set-up in addition to standard office set-up to accommodate home workers and further waves of lockdown or future pandemics.  Each firm will need to gauge their attitude and financial capacity to take this route.

Many firms will manage the shift in part by allowing some more extensive use of personal devices in the home and mobile settings. Is your patching and mobile device management system capable of supporting this potential surge in ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD)’ and mobile device deployment? Firms need to check now. For firms that have not already invested, there may be a business case now for mobile device management (‘MDM’) systems and tools to monitor performance, security and patching for mobiles (and all devices).

Desktop or Laptop? ‘Thin’ or ‘fat’ client? – when returning to work at least part of the time back in the office, your people need a user experience that is as consistent as possible, without difficult and confusing differences in how to operate their tech equipment and use applications when they change location. There can be some big gaps between the in-office, desktop experience and laptop, which can generate inefficiencies and errors (and sometimes requiring the firm to supply and maintain two different devices).   It may be time to evaluate the business case for laptops firmwide for all staff rather than just fee-earners (which is often the default approach) and this may call a halt to any still planned desktop roll-out strategy.

Conclusion: The Agile Law Firm

We have taken technology as our start-point for these articles co-authored with Lights-On Consulting on the post-COVID law firm but as we followed the implications of this most unusual of years, we have presented an inventory of changes to the elemental law firm business model.

We now expect to see permanent and lasting change in how and where (and, almost certainly, when) lawyers work as a result of the events of 2020.  An unexpected shock to the system has, finally, triggered the era of the Agile Law Firm. Many in the legal world will have ambivalent feelings about these changes, which tend towards the much-faster evolution of a digital, remote, fast-moving and constantly changing environment.  Some will feel more unambiguously negative; there are, indeed, many difficult and probably painful consequences of this acceleration and we will take a closer look at these serious challenges and downsides as they come into focus over coming months.

For now, we are now focusing a lot of our time, research and insight on how to plan and implement this emerging Agile Law Firm model and we welcome contributions, ideas and the opportunity to engage on agile strategies right across the legal marketplace.  In our third and final part of the series we will look in more detail at how technology can help to transform many other aspects of law firm operations, starting with collaboration and communication.

Further Reading: the full Lights-On papers summarised in this article are available to read on the Lights-On Consulting website:

Thanks also to Lights-On consultant Christiaan Frickel for his great contributions to this piece.

The Law Firm Technology Landscape Post-lockdown: Part One

Chris Bull and Peter Owen

Take a step back and assess the transforming role of technology in your firm with Edge International and our expert technology partners at Lights-On Consulting.

IT has borne a substantial part of the burden of getting law firms through the constant and rapid sequence of challenges faced since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Along the way, impressive feats of reinvention have taken place in how (and where, and when) law firms work. Most participants in and observers of these changes, and certainly the team at Edge International, believe much of this reinvention is here to stay. The legal industry has had a catalytic shock to its system which has generated the amount of change we might normally expect to take years.

Because that explosion of activity, with technology at its core, has been so rapid, responsive and – at least initially – short-term focused, there has been little time to step back and examine where we now are, or to map out what should happen next. Such a fast-track sequence of big decisions and actions inevitably leave gaps, unresolved issues, training and communication shortfalls, and risks.

Now is the time, we believe, when all firms must begin to review where they have landed on the technology roadmap and what to do next to secure and the positive outcomes and deal with those open risks and issues.

Edge International Principal Chris Bull consults with legal businesses in the space between strategy, transformational change, and operational efficiency. Deploying and leveraging technology is at the heart of this practice, leading to Chris co-founding The Intuity Alliance, a group specifically focused on cutting-edge advice on legal industry IT, innovation, and LegalTech. Fellow founder Peter Owen leads Lights-On Consulting, one of the most experienced legal IT advisory firms in the market. Lights-On has just released an extensive and impressive multi-part overview of IT ‘considerations for the post-lockdown law firm’ and Peter and Chris have worked together to produce this condensed summary of some of the major points in their articles exclusively for our Edge audience. Links to the full Lights-On articles are provided at the end of this piece for readers who want to take a ‘deeper dive’ into this business-critical subject.

In this first of two parts, we look at the technology issues for management teams as they integrate the emerging new ways of working into their firms, at the same time as reopening offices and bringing all areas of the business back on stream. At the heart of those changes is a shift towards a hybrid, agile office and home worker model; whether as a medium-term measure or, for an increasing number of practices, a permanent one.  The underlying theme for all law firm leaders is the need to balance fast-tracked, short-term decisions and actions with an emphasis on medium-term recovery and resilience.

Technology and your people post-lockdown

The Covid-19 crisis and the disruption to lives and livelihoods that have followed have had a spectrum of affects upon individuals, including the people who make up every law firm. It will take a long time for employers to understand and then respond to all of those affects. Technology has had a crucial role to play in enabling people to keep working – and earning – through the crisis and will take a similarly heavy load in facilitating a return to the workplace, supporting a continuation of remote working or blend of remote and office locations (“bi-modal” operations). But intense use of technology has also created new issues and well-being concerns and addressing these will also need to be front-of-mind over the coming months and years.

A new operating model

To comply with social distancing, offices need to be sparsely populated initially and many firms throughout the world are planning for a sustained period where teams will be operating with a blend of office and home workers.  Many firms are planning for only 25% to 30% occupancy initially due to desk layout, circulation corridor and communal area issues. Alongside that, business continuity planning must contemplate a non-linear progression to the recovery and be prepared for further waves of lockdowns which may force a return to mandated home working.

Positive productivity benefits, potential real estate savings and the rapidly growing popularity of an agile working model are now beginning to feature prominently in firm’s medium to long term planning too. Even before lockdown has ended, we have already seen some firms of all sizes announce a permanent shift away from the office as a default location.

The hybrid agile, bi-modal model, enabling working across multiple locations and at any time, seems likely to emerge as the new standard for a majority of law firms. But making that highly unpredictable and constantly flexing approach to work successful in the long term is a different order of problem to the temporary burst of ‘best endeavours’ effort required to get the firm working from home at the start of lockdown. Even if that were the only priority your IT team had to support over the next year or so – which we will see it definitely is not – it would already represent a massive workload and change challenge.

Adapting your firm to the hybrid agile world

Ironically, health & safety compliance may have gone backwards in the short-term as firms dashed to ensure people could work from home, with very few home workstation assessments due to lockdown and an overwhelming volume of home workers to support. More prolonged home working in a more settled post-lockdown world will impose greater obligation to carry out regular audits and self-assessments that assure employee’s wellbeing. Check your capacity to handle this and tighten up your policies on equipment provision, as well as on compliant home working environments. Don’t forget that a bi-modal world will have impacts across a range of areas from insurance policies and electrical testing to expense policies (for items such as home utilities and telephony charges).

Consider home worker kits to prevent the need for transporting equipment to and from the office. This may only be affordable if firms turn to stocks of ‘second life’, pre-used equipment; which brings its own support issues. Consider a policy of retaining older equipment as spares or for home use.

It is critical to understand that working from home does not mean ‘resting’ and we can already see that home workers easily get burned out, “Teamed out” and “Zoomed out”! Many have gone the extra mile to deliver either internal or external service during a pressured time. You may have already recognised that, but it may be worth re-iterating your appreciation, as the return to office effort will also take its toll in terms of adapting to another set of physical and psychological changes. The main burden of communicating and managing this adaptation process falls on leadership, line managers and HR, but IT have a big role to play too and will often be on the ‘front line’ when it comes to dealing with the challenges people across the firm encounter.

IT support in the new world

Firm and IT leadership both now need to plan for extended hours of service and further waves of heightened IT demand. IT may be the first function needing to reverse furloughs and even considering additional staff in response to the new pressures they will face.

From an IT support perspective, lockdown has meant supporting multiple home working locations with different set-up, connectivity and risk factors. Homeworkers may be sharing parental and home-schooling care or responding to a range of other factors which have created very varied working patterns, including more evening and weekend working. As a result, firms are now also facing extended hours of demand on IT teams.  For IT support teams, it can feel like the job has changed from supporting one office 8am-6pm Monday-Friday to supporting 80 separate home offices 24×7.

IT teams have worked hard and fast to deliver home working but what will the next stage demands on the team be and how should leaders prepare? With a return to some form of office-based working your IT team will also be under pressure to resume some form of physical 2nd-line support; including physical visits required to re-install equipment that people have brought back into the office. We believe other issues, bringing both opportunity and risk to the firm, include:

  • Training – Can we use what has happened to transform how we train people? What doors to new digital training methods have been opened-up and what new approaches and technology will work? Certainly, with new applications and ways of working having been adopted very rapidly and at a distance, really embedding skills and consistency is now a priority. Many larger firms with centralised support models already utilise online conferencing tools to deliver training to their offices, but this approach is now ripe for adoption by smaller firms too.
  • Printing – It is sad to say that all wars advance technology and this war against a virus is doing the same. Widescale adoption of a range of digital tools and a more genuinely paperless way of working has been forced upon lawyers in 2020, including reviewing contracts on screen, e-signing and electronic workflows. If printer-less and paper-free working is possible, now does feel like the moment the legal world has to finally bite the bullet and severely restrict (or consider removing altogether – as we have heard of some firms doing whilst people are out of the office) local printing facilities in the office. Bold firms can benefit from such a change and not simply accept a return to the pre-crisis reflex tendency to print unnecessarily.
  • Conferencing Apps – whilst we might expect ‘peak Zoom’ to be behind us now (they have seen a 30-fold increase in users), the relative importance of virtual meeting and conferencing software in the legal IT mix has shifted forever. These tools are now set to be a critical component of client service, collaboration and the day-to-day reality of how teams work together. Internal IT knowledge and skills in this area, from 1st line service desk right up to strategic application management, needs to be ramped up, especially as the range of options extends and new functionality – such as automated translation and subtitling – promises to make a virtual meeting a more effective and sophisticated option to meeting face-to-face. The immediate post-lockdown period will put your IT services under an extended period of pressure yet again, with an even more complex range of demands than they faced during lockdown itself. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that law firm IT will never return to its pre-crisis shape, with a number of factors driving that permanent change:
  • High Tempo Expectation Management – your IT team has pulled out the stops under difficult circumstances and delivered in days or weeks all kinds of solutions that would normally take months. Has this now re-set expectations of IT going forward? That could be dangerous; IT may have been forced to cut corners to meet deadlines and now have to contend with delivering on the expectation of a high tempo forged during a crisis, whilst bringing back the governance standards partly foregone.
  • Super-user support – the normal support regime where the 1st port of call for basic IT advice is the “secretary next door” has been disrupted by social distancing and remote working. Consider granting those super-users the same sort of screen takeover tools that the service desk has (with appropriate security rights and training). In-team lawyer support can continue while stretched-IT resources can be reserved for the most technically difficult tasks.
  • Hot Desking – for now, flexible sharing of desks is against most governments’ recommendations and so the vanguard of firms which had implemented hot desking to maximise floor plate flexibility are having to reconfigure layouts, processes and technology to ensure that desks are only used by one individual. For those many firms looking to reduce their real estate footprint over the next year or so, this will restrict that opportunity for a period until government advice and individual confidence consider hot desking safe again.
  • Safe ‘at-desk’ support – difficulties are likely to result from hands-on IT work, where it is tough for IT support and the user to stay the 1 to 2 metres distance apart. Remote access and support will need to take more of the strain. All-in-all, it is probably unrealistic to expect physical 2nd line support to return to its pre-crisis format or extent, maybe ever. In a hybrid agile model, IT support is going to be principally remote and digital, providing a consistent offer to workers wherever they are sat on the day.
  • Incidents versus Service Requests – the service team may have spent the last 3 months focussed solely on fixing incidents. As the firm adjusts to post-lockdown working, it is important to use the data from the firm’s Service Desk to ensure IT resources are delivering the biggest bang for their buck – get IT back on the front-foot tackling the most important service requests and improvement projects, not continuing to just react to issues.  

Easy to overlook essentials

As offices are, even if only partially, reopened, IT teams and management have a host of tasks, large and small, to schedule and complete. Some might be easy to overlook but are, in fact, critical to get right. Here is our ‘don’t say we didn’t tell you’ list for firms to be certain they don’t overlook:

  • Re-start testing – during lockdown, with so many people working at home, there will be office equipment that has not been utilised in some time. A physical audit and test is recommended before the doors to offices are flung open again.
  • Check your supplier agreements – do your service level agreements cover support to your business if your people are working remotely or in a bi-modal set-up rather than all office-based? With remote support likely to be required for an extended period now, re-examination of commercial terms may be required. Conversely, if you are now expecting suppliers to come back and work on-site, what provisions do you and they have to put in place to ensure safety and mutual compliance with respective Covid-19 related policies?
  • Internet – examine your internet service contracts and bills and assess whether your set-up is optimal for supporting the volume of people now coming in and going out via the internet line.
  • Hack Amnesty – tech savvy lawyers will have found very innovative ways of collaborating, sharing and working remotely offline in recent months. They may have even tried the odd YouTube hack here and there to work around governance that makes remote life difficult. Face up to these grey areas head-on; you should survey your end users (and your IT staff) confidentially to find out what was good, what got in the way of working and whether they found work arounds or “hacks” to the system that you might want to adopt and share more widely.
  • The Environmental opportunity – a comment made many times in mainstream press coverage of the crisis is that some of the most important priorities which were dominating thinking and gaining momentum pre-Covid have been side-lined and are at risk of stalling. Within your own sphere of influence don’t let that be the case in terms of reducing your firm’s own carbon footprint; there are multiple ways in which technology (albeit also a primary driver of energy consumption) can help push your environmental performance to the next level, including reducing paper and energy consumption.

Thinking one step ahead: what comes after ‘what’s next’?

Over the time span of the Covid-19 crisis so far, IT capabilities have been fundamental in achieving a swift transition to remote working and maintaining client service and team working in uniquely difficult circumstances. That task, though undoubtably challenging, was unambiguous. The next phase is much less clear-cut, as lockdowns around the world ease at different paces and myriad variations on a hybrid model take hold. This feels a bit like the family vacation; the return journey may feel longer and less rewarding than the sudden adrenalin rush of the start of lockdown and those making the journey back are now tired, bored and no longer in the best of spirits.

We have tried here to provide some practical insight into how to handle the technology component of this tricky period. But we have also drawn attention to how the crisis has seeded what we believe will be permanent and significant changes to the way law firms operate.

Firstly, the emergence of a hybrid/agile operating model, with previous resistance increasingly replaced by strong support from clients and employees alike.

Secondly, the acceleration of digitisation across the firm. Your lawyers and support staff will have got used – to varying degrees of success – to getting work done both remotely and digitally. Allowing a reflex return to more conventional ways of working in your firm, even for just a few more months, risks undermining your ability to compete over the next few years. Firms reluctant to fully embrace digital working and who ramp back up their use of paper and retreat from the intensely agile model of the last few months might quickly find themselves literally years behind direct competitors in terms of efficiency, agility, client service excellence, appeal to new talent, value-for-money and, ultimately, profitability.

Those emerging trends are not without serious risks and challenges, but they also offer law firms enormous opportunity to reinvent the way they work and present themselves in a new light to existing and prospective clients and professionals. Coming soon, in the 2nd and final part of this short series, we will turn our attention to the specific digital innovations and trends we think will dominate the legal landscape over the next few years, as the implications of the crisis for the sector play out.

Further Reading: the full Lights-On papers summarised in this article are available to read on the Lights-On Consulting website:

Thanks also to Lights-On consultant Stephen Brown for his great contributions to this piece.