COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis is not the first law firm disruption of the 21st century. The Great Recession of 2008 was a slow-moving storm that shifted the balance of power from law firms to their clients.
By contrast, COVID-19 is like an earthquake that tore apart the landscape overnight and forced law firms into a twilight zone between the past and their transformed future. A firm’s response and resiliency depended on where the organisation fell along the spectrum of agility, infrastructure, digital knowledge, and collaboration tools.
In his biography ‘Call Sign Chaos’, retired U.S. Marine General James Mattis articulates three drivers of wartime knowledge sharing: housekeeping, decision-making, and alarms. The Mattis KM checklist for “under the gun” decision-making is succinct:
- What do I know,
- who needs to know it, and
- have I told them?
At the onset of the current crisis, knowledge management (KM) professionals were simultaneously challenged with assuring that both administrators and lawyers had access to existing knowledge resources while aggregating and disseminating the tsunami of laws, regulations, and policies that were emanating at warp speed from every level of government. Seemingly overnight every law firm had to assemble ‘pandemic teams’ to advise on how the firm should respond internally to stay-at-home orders while advising clients on how to protect their supply chains, their employees, their contracts, and their own customers in an emerging area of ‘pandemic law’.
KM professionals became key leaders and collaborators in these pandemic swat teams, setting up internal knowledge sharing platforms, establishing client facing e-rooms, and feeding content to marketing for COVID-19 client updates, thought pieces, and webinars. They were also helping lawyers respond to real-time demands from clients.
Ron Friedmann, a legal consultant and blogger at Prismlegal.com observes that “the crisis will also have positive KM knock-on effects”. For example, the use of document management (DM) systems at most firms has been spotty, he explains; but now, between security and collaboration concerns that could change. “I expect many firms will get serious about requiring DM use,” Friedmann says. “And that will build a better KM foundation.”
Making digital transformation stick
Forward-thinking librarians and knowledge professionals had unknowingly prepared for the pandemic when they designed digital research and workflow platforms that offered lawyers one-click access to cases, legislation, European Union regulations and directives, treatises, current awareness, practical guidance, analytics on judges, tools for red-lining deal documents, forms, and precedent databases. These libraries were open 24/7 and could be accessed from any location. And even those firms had holdouts that were reluctant to use these tools.
The COVID-19 crisis has turbo-charged technology adoption. Lawyers who had proudly defined themselves as Luddites have been forced into Zoom rooms for meetings and have been deprived of their books.
As law firms start re-opening their offices over the next few weeks and months, they need to hold onto the ground that has been gained and in fact, press on for greater adoption and transformation. Firms need to recognise that “there is a big difference between using video or work-from-home and adopting tools genuinely designed for ongoing collaboration”, says Friedmann, adding that he also sees an opportunity for firms to use the post-pandemic world to pry lawyers away from tools that were designed for individual work, not groups. The next challenge will be investing in and managing the adoption of true collaboration tools that anyone to work with anyone else from anywhere.
Indeed, COVID-19 challenged every firm to engage in ‘design thinking’ in real time, and the reimagining of law firm workflow needs to continue. This should not be left behind as a ‘tabletop exercise’—the lessons learned by the forced change in work during the pandemic crisis need to be embraced.
And law firms need to reward and encourage the agility that will be required to move them to the next tier of knowledge sharing and collaboration.
By: Jean O’Grady
Senior Director of Research & Knowledge at DLA Piper
Jean O’Grady is Senior Director of Research & Knowledge at DLA Piper.
O’Grady has more than 30 years of experience developing strategic information initiatives for Am Law 100 law firms. She holds a J.D. from Fordham University School of Law, an M.L.S. from St. John’s University and a B.A. in History from Fordham University. She also is a member of the NY State Bar.
O’Grady also writes the DeweyBStrategic blog and is an Editorial Board member of the “Practice Innovations” newsletter.