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How law firms can support their team and clients through COVID-19

REUTERS/Lisi Niesner (Photo)

In 2020, we knew Brexit was going to keep the legal profession busy across Europe due to the added uncertainty to an already complex market. However, concerns about customs regulations, data privacy rules, and carbon emissions targets were dwarfed by the onset of COVID-19. Lockdown restrictions not only brought new ways of working, but also posed an existential threat to many sectors. It is in such times of crisis that clients turn to their legal advisers for support, and over the next few weeks we will be looking at how law firms can help their clients as they make plans for 2021 and beyond.

Many companies, and their in-house legal teams, will have adapted successfully to COVID-19 imposed operating model. Zoom calls, working from home and increased flexibility have become business as usual—as the day-to-day work of reviewing contracts, complying with regulatory changes, and monitoring risks carries on. Still, it is not always easy, and law firms are well placed to help their clients through the crisis—above and beyond the daily routine. The goal should be to enable clients to add greater value to their organisation beyond routine legal matters.

Understand your client’s needs

Lawyers who are well established as ‘trusted advisors’ have always known that earning such status means providing a combination of reliability, independence, and empathy—and at a time like this all three come into play. Perhaps empathy needs to be the distinguishing characteristic today, as clients face seismic change, threats to their business models and a barrage of new rules and regulations.

Understanding the impact on their clients of new regulations and legislation is bread and butter work for law firms. A good advisor will also be aware of the strategic issues COVID-19 raises for various sectors—the challenges for some, possibly even an opportunity for others. However, they also need to appreciate the pressures GCs face in running their own departments and being part of the leadership team in our new world in which working remotely will likely remain more common.

A good legal adviser will enable the GC to be a more effective corporate leader by making sure the day-to-day legal work runs smoothly, allowing them to focus on more strategic issues. In particular, as companies adapt and innovate in the face of changing markets, lawyers can support GCs in this transformation—identifying risks and challenges, certainly, but also supporting, and encouraging new ways of doing things.

Law firms also need to recognise the pressure on costs and the drive for greater efficiency, two trends that have accelerated as firms deal with the impact of COVID-19. Indeed, law firms need to protect their own revenues but the more they can assist their clients in being efficient, the more they will earn that ‘trusted advisor’ status. Efficiency is not only about keeping costs down; law firms can also encourage their clients to make greater use of legal technology.

Future-proof your relationships

The pandemic is forcing many companies to re-think their business model. There is an increased willingness to look at new ways of doing things and most clients are reviewing their supply chains. Although this almost always means physical supply chains, corporate procurement teams may take the opportunity to review service suppliers too.

Remote working may lead clients to question the need for legal advisers with expensive city-centre offices. There is already a trend towards the use of alternative legal service providers (ALSPs), in particular multi-disciplinary professional services such as the Big 4. Also, some of the major law firms have created their own ALSP arm of their business: Pinset Mason’s Vario; Freshfield’s Hub; Evershed Sutherland’s Konexo; and Reed Smith Gravity Stack. Traditional law firms, if they do not follow suit and branch out into an ASLP, will need to ensure that their relationships are strong enough to compete with such offerings, which may promise greater efficiency.

Internal management

Of course, while looking out for clients, law firms also have to ensure their own management practices are robust enough to cope with the on-going challenges brought on by market changes. For the large global firms with significant management infrastructure, adjusting has likely not be a major challenge. For smaller firms, however, there could be clash of priorities that may test the strongest client relationships.

A lot of legal activity is well suited to remote working, given suitable technology. For experienced professionals with established careers, working from home long-term may be attractive. For junior staff, however, there is a risk that they miss the opportunity to learn and network through sitting with their colleagues. It is no surprise therefore that in the long run, many firms will aim to get their staff back into the office as soon as it is safe to do so—though sometimes the problems are out of their control. One firm recently indicated that the biggest challenge to a return to normal working was the capacity of lifts up to their prestigious 25th floor offices—since in the immediate future social distancing will be part of daily life.

Remote working over a long period will also make it harder to build and maintain a corporate culture, across the firm and within teams. A City-based firm noted the ‘bump-space’ they deliberately created in their building to enable easy, serendipitous contact between all members of the firm, facilitating the sharing of expertise and ideas that is a hallmark of their culture. In a world that encourages social distancing, modifications to this methodology for increased interaction will need to lean toward technological interventions.

Chatting across Zoom calls before and after ‘official business’ can be a substitute for the casual conversations and informal networking that happen day-to-day within an office—and stay connected to clients. As circumstances change, and potentially have long-term effects, the hallmark of a good firm is to adapt and improve. In that way, some things never change.

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