Big Law Without the Fancy Dinners

I have been thinking about what to write for this blog post since the semester began. I have made a long list of topics to discuss and spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about how I would present my ideas in an eloquent way. You would think that all that time and effort would translate to a great work product, but alas, here I am the night before it is due, drinking a glass of wine, and struggling to piece together a coherent piece of writing. Essentially, I have thrown a bunch of thoughts onto the page… hopefully something sticks.

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The practice of law is very people-centric. On any given day, you may interact with clients, your colleagues, or folks at the courthouse. If you work at a large firm, you may attend a plethora of social events in addition to drinks every Friday. Law students going through recruitment are inundated with hands to shake and people to impress. But COVID-19 has completely changed many of the social aspects of the legal profession. While some of the changes were welcomed (flexible work hours, no commute time, pants optional), the social isolation and added stresses have taken a toll on many. Additionally, firms have had to change the way they do business as they can no longer attract top talent and large clients with fancy dinners and expensive swag.

Recruitment

Before entering law school, I had this preconceived idea that all lawyers were extroverted with large personalities. Knowing a total of zero lawyers, this idea was fueled solely by what I saw in the media. Since coming to law school, I have learned that there are many introverts like myself here. Some are good at presenting as extroverts for discrete periods of time while other have zero desire to do so. This can be a real challenge when navigating the recruitment process, especially for large firms. On top of interviews there are receptions, coffees, lunches, and dinners to attend. It means being constantly “on”. It also may mean that some incredibly talented people are self-selecting out of this process to avoid the social hellfire (maybe some people enjoy it though) that is interview week. The switch to an online recruitment may allow more diverse personalities to succeed in the process and reduce the stress and anxiety associated with it.

A virtual recruit will also level the playing field for smaller firms. Many large firms have a sizable budget dedicated to recruitment of students and associates. This often involves treating people to fancy dinners and sending them home with swag. They also showcase their beautiful and expensive office spaces as an incentive to work there. It is as if to say that all these nice things will make the ridiculously long hours worth it. And honestly, that tactic is probably successful. But this year, it is unlikely that many firms will be willing to incur the risks and liabilities associated with the classic recruitment style, whether they have the budget for it or not. This means that small and medium sized firms, that have a lot to offer students in the way of expertise and mentorship, have a chance to stand out.

Practice

Working from home has presented many challenges, but very few of them are because people cannot perform their work tasks from home. The real challenges have been related to the intermingling of work and home life or the social isolation.

Finding a work life balance is a longstanding issue in the legal field that predates COVID-19. However, COVID-19 and the abrupt shift to working from home has exacerbated the issue for many. Some people are now working in a space shared with spouses, children, elderly dependents, roommates, or a combination thereof. These competing interests make working or focusing on work extremely difficult. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the individuals who are living alone. These folks previously relied on the social interactions they would receive by simply going into the office each day. This can create extreme feelings of isolation for some folks, compounding the stress and anxiety they may be feeling from other sources.

Another issue is the lack of separation between work and home. The work-space and the home-space have become one and the previous lines of separation have blurred. Maybe now it is easier to excuse unreasonable hours if they can do it from the comfort of their own bed. Maybe it is easier to get a few more hours of billable work done after dinner because the office is just steps away. It will be up to senior lawyers and firm leaders to ensure that their associates are not working themselves sick and are encouraging them to set healthy boundaries at home.

While some long to get back into the office, there are also many people who are content to keep working from home once the pandemic has passed. For some people, working from home allows them to set more flexible work hours, make more time for self-care, and gives them geographical freedom. A survey released in September 2020 found that 45% of Canadians surveyed would prefer to work from home at least three days a week. What does this mean for law firms? It is now known that in-office, remote, and hybrid set-ups can be implemented successfully, and it is unlikely to return to a strictly in-office set up. Firms will likely have to offer more flexible work arrangements indefinitely. Lawyers may start demanding the flexibility to work from home part-time, given that their practice is amenable to the it. If a firm refuses to offer this flexibility and balance, it is likely the lawyer can find another who will.

Allowing lawyers more autonomy over their “work location choice” may also benefit the firm financially (and what do large firms love more?). Having a mix of lawyers who work from home full-time or only need office space part-time means a reduced need for expensive office spaces. Offices can be shared by multiple lawyers that use the space on different days or they can be converted into collaborative workspaces.

Client Relationships

Another challenge for firms is how to maintain client relationships and add value to their services. Large firms with large clients rely on adding value to their services by taking them to exclusive restaurants, golf courses, and sports games. Firms are now having to pivot away from this practice while still ensuring their clients do not feel forgotten or uncared for. At the end of the billing cycle, when the client looks at their bill, will they start to question the high price tag when it doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles? Potentially. To avoid this, the work will need to speak for itself. Producing quality legal work has always been an important aspect of bringing in and retaining high-profile clients, but now to an even greater degree. Additionally, it leaves room for lawyers to be innovative and creative in how they approach client relations.

Connecting virtually may allow for more deep and meaningful connections. Children, pets, and housemates have been making surprise appearances in video chat meetings. Clients and colleagues are seeing into your home, which may not be as picture perfect as office spaces. This is an opportunity to embrace vulnerability and humanity by showcasing our perceived flaws. The fact that someone’s office is now the kitchen table and there is a two year old in the background screaming that they hate their mom’s new haircut (inspired by true events) does not mean that individual is a bad lawyer, it means they are human. We are being presented with an opportunity to laugh together, feel humbled together, and rebuild stronger, together.

 

Sources:

Office work could be changed forever by COVID-19. Here’s why that matters, Brandie Weikle, https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/office-workers-home-covid-19-1.5711334

Labour Force Survey, August 2020, Statistics Canada, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200904/dq200904a-eng.htm

How to Connect with Clients in the Time of COVID-19: 3 Tips, Will Hattman, https://www.searchenginejournal.com/client-connection-tips/373125/#close

Incorporating Intersectionality in User Profiles: Accessibility and Inclusion.

The need more for accessible legal services or information is well known and unnecessary to recount, but it is clear that a major problem facing access to these services is the amount they cost; very few people can afford them. This leads to average-income and particularly low-income groups or individuals not having access to justice and many of these low-income groups or individuals are also from other equity-seeking groups, which makes this an intersectional issue.

The transition into offering legal services or information online can help address the access to justice issue by allowing these groups to have access to answers or information regarding their legal problems at low or no cost. However, what about those groups or individuals that are at the intersections of disadvantage? For example, minority groups with none to limited English proficiency that also have low income or disabled people with low income. The impact of A2J initiatives for them will undoubtedly be less unless the online tool can address these intersectional issues.

When making user profiles, it is critical to consider users that may fall outside the majority but for whom the services offered may still be essential. Accessibility, usability, and inclusion are important concepts to address in user-profiles and then work towards implementing solutions within your online platform to help address the needs of these groups.

For example, how will the online service help those groups of people that do have limited or low English proficiency or those that have visual impairments and may not be able to read the text? The need to address questions such as: Is there a way to translate English to another language; is it possible to have audio prompts for those who cannot read or have visual impairments, etc.?

Now, by no means am I an expert in technology. I am only addressing some of the potential issues that may come up as legal professionals or students work towards developing online tools to help people with legal needs – presumably, those who cannot afford to pay for them.

I believe that online platforms can accommodate these groups further by having these added features. For example, web services that enable two systems to interact and share information. Online legal applications can take advantage of these services to deliver new online capabilities, like translating text between two different languages.

This is not to say it is a perfect solution. I recognize there are real challenges with the interpretation or translation of languages that may compromise the accuracy of the information translated. Therefore, preliminary testing to ensure the translation of the text is accurate by an expert is recommended.

Services like screen readers allow visually impaired persons to use the internet by reading a website text aloud. Video conferencing can be a great tool for hearing impaired people when used to provide sign language interpreters, particularly if a firm is using technology to provide services or for rural courts who may need the help of sign language interpreters.

This post was just a friendly reminder to incorporate equity-seeking groups into our user profiles, if possible or applicable, to the legal services online platform to be developed. I acknowledge that some online platforms will be targeted to professionals or users that will not have English proficiency as an issue, for example, “BC lawyers”. However, some online platforms that are directed at the population may face some of these issues. For those of us moving forward in this profession, we should not only be aware of these issues but advocate for solutions when possible.

Technology: Increasing or Restricting Access to Justice?

Let me preface this by saying: I love technology. Truthfully, my life is embarrassingly run by it on all fronts. If technology ever does actually turn on us, I’ll probably be the first to go. Seriously, I don’t know what I would do if you, and I shudder at the thought, asked me for someone’s number or for directions, on one of the rare occasions that I am not holding a device. Ask me what the first thing I do in the morning is, and I’ll struggle with whether the correct answer is “check my notifications” or say “Alexa, start my day”. If you think I’m kidding, I am that person. Even my front door is tech-based. Seriously. I don’t have keys anymore – just codes.

A few months ago, I was reading about the possibility of an eventual complete technological overhaul of the legal profession. By complete overhaul, I mean absolutely everything from communication to documents to meetings and some forms of hearings. “What a horrible and privileged idea!” I thought to myself as I sat on my laptop, phone in hand, silently judging my grandmother who requests help posting photos on Facebook again. I know, I’m also that person. But, hear me out.

To encourage or desire a complete technological overhaul in the legal field is ignorant and a clear demonstration of the privilege we hold. I get it, times are changing- wait, I feel like now is a good time to throw in that I’m 25 and can’t really remember a life without technology, but my point remains the same: times are changing and we need to be technologically competent – it would be ridiculous not to be these days. However, I think that we often forget about those that cannot move through this technological shift with us. And those individuals are likely to be the ones that need our help the most.

A technology-based shift is feasible and affordable for large-scale firms and their clientele. There’s no doubt that it’s a good move for them. But – and hold on to your hats – this is not about them. Yes, you heard me (read me?) right. This is about everyone else.

I’m thinking particularly about legal clinics. These clinics are essential, yet are often understaffed, underfunded, and overworked. And, what about their clients? Some can’t even be reached because they don’t have cell phones or laptops, yet we should respectfully request they… what? Scan items over? Maybe fill out an electronic form, and don’t forget to drop an e-signature on the PDF before emailing it back?

“But wait, accessing a phone or computer is technically possible, even if it means stopping at a public library!”. Okay, let’s ignore the pandemic and board this train for a second. Yes, this is technically true. It may not be easy, but it sure is possible. Okay, but what about the lack of required knowledge and technological competency? You and I both know good and well that half of the professionals we’ve encountered over the years are brilliant and have amazing educational backgrounds and credentials with knowledge and experiences we could only dream of, and yet they struggle to rotate a PDF or turn the volume on for a video. So, how do we justify having higher expectations for individuals whose sole option in obtaining legal assistance is through legal clinics?

This is not to say that tech such as Clio should be avoided – of course it should be encouraged, it allows us to work outside of the office while still maintaining confidentiality. Again, my hesitation is not with lawyers being required to be technologically competent, because this I support. It is specifically the notion that every single area of law could experience a complete and total overhaul that I take issue with. It is unlikely that legal clinics (and even small firms) and their clientele would be able to keep up with the technological shift due to financial, educational and/or accessibility barriers.

So, I’ll leave you with this: I worry that with a large technological shift, we leave behind many individuals who could benefit greatly from our help. I believe online resources and apps are an amazing way to increase accessibility to information, and we should move forward with them, but bring back the paper pamphlet too. And lastly, a question that I find myself wrestling with often: we constantly talk about the importance of access to justice, but who is it that we are really increasing access for?

Legal Innovation. A World of Possibility

Jake and Simon explore legal innovation. Why are legal services so expensive? How can they be cheaper? Is there a better way? Check out the podcast at one of the links below!

https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/a-bit-of-everything-podcast/id1498287414#episodeGuid=abitofeverything.podbean.com%2Fc85749af-3def-3b90-a65a-0685d6a28b9d

 

Technologish: Technological Requirements for Lawyers in the Age of COVID

COVID-19 has forced us to re-evaluate how we interact at school, work, and even at home. Now more than ever, technological competency is essential for living our daily lives. In light of these changes, it is time that the Law Society of BC adds technological requirements to the Code of Professional Conduct.

Amy Salyzyn’s article It’s Finally (Sort Of) Here!: A Duty of Technological Competence for Canadian Lawyers outlined the pre-COVID addition to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada Model Code of Professional Conduct, which now includes a requirement for a level of technological competency. The Law Society of BC has yet to address a technological competency requirement.

According to current practice standards of the Law Society of BC, a lawyer must acquire and maintain adequate:

  • knowledge of the substantive law;
  • knowledge of the practice and procedures by which that substantive law can be effectively applied; and
  • skills to represent the client’s interests effectively [emphasis added]

Some clients will never be available through Zoom; some may not own a cell phone. But that makes it even more critical for their lawyer to have the technological skills to represent them, especially with the move towards virtual court. It is up to lawyers to help them to the best of their abilities. The pandemic has brought about a host of new legal issues, like access to justice and privacy. Legal professionals should have the technological skills to respond and adapt to an uncertain future. The Law Society of BC should be encouraging this long-overdue growth.