Carpe pandemus: how law firms can use coronavirus as an opportunity to transform

In the 1400s, the Italian Renaissance began in Florence, a city devastated by the Black Death.

With over 60% of its citizens dead, huge gaps in financial and social structures allowed an educated middle class to rise and an environment of creativity to flourish.

More broadly, the Bubonic Plague is generally considered to have marked the end of the Dark Ages and to have ushered in the Age of Discovery and the Renaissance across the (‘civilised’) world. While we all know the current pandemic will not bring about the same level of mortality, everyone is nonetheless asking themselves, what will my world look like after this is over?

In our little universe in particular, we all want to know what law firms will look like after the pandemic.

It’s a question on many minds as the virus continues to barrel through our lives. And of course, the answer depends on who you ask.

Legal futurists like Richard Susskind and Mark A. Cohen predict wholescale transformation. A few months into the pandemic, Cohen wrote:

“The question is which elements of ‘old law’ and legal culture will remain, not whether things will return to the before-Corona order.”

On the other end of the spectrum some firms are simply hunkering down, waiting impatiently for things to get ‘back to normal’.

We think the gap between these two different positions represents a huge opportunity. Because COVID-19 hasn’t occurred in a vacuum, it’s exacerbated existing tensions and vulnerabilities. Similarly, we see it accelerating the tidal wave of social change already challenging many law firms: from the fourth industrial revolution to the increasing pressure of managing flexible work, millennials, and client loyalty.

Before the pandemic, firms had time to deal with these in a measured and stately way. We had five-year plans and ten-year strategies. As long as all firms were sailing the same steady course, there was little risk a competitor would pull out too far ahead.

But the pandemic has changed everything. By upending every aspect of our lives, by transforming slow and subtle cultural shifts into an avalanche, it’s shaken our previous assumptions and structures to the ground. Which gives us the opportunity, if we take it, to build our lives and work and business anew.

We see law firms standing on the precipice of an entirely new way of working. And firms that seize the opportunity to transform and ride the wave of change will sail far ahead of those who don’t.

You might think we’re exaggerating.

It’s old news that the law firm market gets tougher each year.

Long before COVID-19, firms were battling it out in fierce competition over a static market. The post-GFC world gave us shrinking client budgets, increased pressure on efficiency, and a loss of relationship-based briefing. It also gave us the NewLaw firms, which started off as toy dogs nipping at the heels of Great Danes, but now – in force – are drawing blood.

And on top of that, firms kept facing the same internal struggles: politics, hiring, demands for flexible work and work-life balance, their best lawyers leaving or getting poached away.

But law firms are both resilient and resistant. In the face of strident calls for equality, they incrementally improved the gender balance and experimented with different ways of working (at least in the least profitable practice areas). In the GFC they made the hard choices: they cut jobs and tightened belts and later experimented with process improvement, innovation, and emerging technology.

However, when it comes down to it, firms have managed to push through all challenges and thrive with only minimal changes to the way they work and structure their business.

So, why should surviving the pandemic be any different?

The easy answer is that from an economic standpoint, COVID-19 dwarfs the GFC. The IMF has confirmed this will be the worst recession since the Great Depression.

But we think the difference is much bigger than economics. The GFC was an economic event, not a social one. It was closer to the recession of the early 1990s or the burst of the dot com bubble. And while economic downturns always lead to some change, except for the most extreme (like the Great Depression), they rarely lead to widespread and wholesale social transformations that impact every aspect of personal, professional, and public life.

In contrast, Coronavirus, like no other crisis in recent history, has forced us all to take a long, hard look at ourselves in the mirror. This is not just an economic downturn.

Before Covid-19, in our privileged Western world, we felt immortal.

We believed we were safe from something like a pandemic. That such things happen in other places.

We believed we knew the likely trajectory of our lives, because we believed that change and reform take time: in work, in politics, in social change, in environmental protection, in regulation. And so we accepted social change is slow and will follow a particular pathway (gay marriage, civil rights, reconciliation). Workplace change is slow and will follow a particular timeline (equal pay for equal work, diversity in leadership, flexibility in the workplace). Political change is slow and will follow a known process (whitepaper then committee then report then another committee then another report then consultation and maybe eventually some legislative change).

But that’s not always true.

One of the key lessons of coronavirus is the reminder that change isn’t actually linear. It’s usually exponential – just like viruses. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell explored this in his bestselling book The Tipping Point, where he showed that when influential people promote a compelling idea at just the right moment, there will be a ‘tipping’ point after which there’s no going back. From that point, that new idea will spread exponentially. This is also known as the Diffusion of Innovation theory; which Simon Sinek often talks about in the context of early adopters of ideas.

It’s important to understand that once the tipping point has been reached, change is both exponential and unstoppable. However it doesn’t happen overnight and is frequently barely perceptible or easily misunderstood in the early stages. There’s a long period where it looks like little has changed at all, before it reaches Gladwell’s ‘tipping point’ and explodes.

We think this pandemic is an unprecedented chance for firms to ride the wave that is already here, and to race for the tipping point. We think firms can take all the years of accumulated wishing and wanting and arguments for change and make it happen. We also think resistance is futile – the only question is whether a firm gets to enjoy the benefits of early adoption or if they have to race to catch up as laggards.

There’s a reason everyone keeps using the word ‘unprecedented’.

Politicians have moved with unprecedented speed to close borders, implement lockdowns, provide economic support, implement new legal regimes. Banks have moved with unprecedented speed to suspend mortgage repayments, provide debt relief and capital financing to businesses. Companies have moved with unprecedented speed to move hundreds of thousands of people to remote working and to restructure their businesses to allow for social distancing. Schools have moved with unprecedented speed to move their entire curricula to online learning.

All in response not to an economic threat or a global war but to an everyday risk: one that starts with a sniffle or an itchy throat, but then is 50 to 100 times more likely to end in death than any other cold or flu.

Now we all know that things that seemed impossible, or at least many years away, can happen overnight.

This pandemic has shoved its way into every aspect of our lives. How we live, who we love, where we eat, how we socialise, how we work.

We are all confronted with our vulnerability and fragility. We’re also confronted with the vulnerability of our loved ones and the people we care about. We all know somebody who is high risk, we can all imagine the worst-case scenario.

This electric moment, where we’re both confronted with our inescapable mortality at the same time as becoming aware of how quickly things can change, is significantly shifting perceptions about what matters and how things could be.

This is no truer than at work, and law firms are feeling the change. The pandemic has forced lawyers out of the office. It’s forced firms to remote, flexible work. It has broken, overnight, a culture of presenteeism and a belief that supervision means eyeballs watching the tops of heads.

No longer is a distributed legal workforce a theory. No longer can anyone argue that legal work can’t be done remotely. No more can it be said that clients won’t accept it.

We see the pandemic as a chance to transform the way law firms work to be happier, healthier, and more profitable.

Despite all this change, we still see some law firms talking about ‘getting back to work’ when their lawyers never stopped working. We see some firms already trying to return to a pre-crisis way of working, and immediately running into numerous challenges.

We think there’s another way. An opportunity to ask how this pandemic can help us transform the legal model to be nimbler, more responsive, more profitable, and more satisfying for everyone involved. That’s why we’ve created this Transformation Series of articles to help. Stay tuned for our next pieces diving into the transformation of where and the transformation of who, for law firms ready to stride forward as law firms of the future.

Carpe Diem. Seize the day.

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