COVID-19 Impact on the Legal Industry: How the virus has kickstarted change

June 20, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

COVID-19 has sparked change in almost all areas of the legal industry, as law firms have transitioned to working remotely, and court hearings are being held online.

What does this mean?

In the High Court of Justice and Court of Appeal, civil hearings have been moved to online platforms. In these courts, the argument is predominantly legal, meaning discussion is largely between lawyers. These lawyer-heavy hearings work well, as legal professionals are more likely to have access to quiet space and a stable internet connection. Fowler v Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs was held virtually on 24 March, making history as the first virtual Supreme Court case.

Issues arise in courts such as the county, family and magistrates’ courts. In these courts, claimants often represent themselves and may not always have the facilities to participate in online hearings. A survey by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory found that many legal professionals find it “extremely difficult to conduct hearings with the level of empathy and humanity” required. These hearings are often sensitive, and the same level of empathy is not achievable virtually.  

The virus has also impacted the ways that commercial firms work. Some firms have furloughed receptionists and other staff, and many firms have reduced working hours. At the start of May, Gowling WLG reduced the working hours for a quarter of its staff until October; Dentons UK and Middle East has asked its workforce to stick to a four-day week for six months. Remote work can also slow down the pace of commercial work, due to its team-oriented nature. Although these firms have the facilities in place to work remotely, working solely online may not be sustainable long-term.

What's the big picture effect?

The coronavirus outbreak could be the catalyst for change that the legal industry needed. The government reviewed the court system in 2015, releasing a report outlining changes necessary to modernise the system. Initial implementation of this was slow, but the virus has meant that the courts have been forced to digitalise quickly. As some of these changes have been effective, they could become permanent. Virtual hearings are often more cost-effective as there are no travel costs, and they save time. Courts have also moved to electronic document-filing systems, an efficient move that may not have been made otherwise.

However, there are various issues with online court hearings. This includes the internet connectivity problems, or the fact that individuals could secretly record hearings. Online hearings are also more difficult if they are document-heavy, as accessing bundles of information swiftly could become a problem, and it could be difficult to undergo a cross-examination virtually.

Remote working has also led to a breakdown of the 9 to 5 working model amongst legal professionals. Many firms have reduced their employees’ working hours down to a four-day week; there is a shift from a hours-based approach to a more productivity-based one in the workplace. Many lawyers have found working from home hugely effective. Sophie Gould, head of learning and development at F-lex Legal, said that she found the transition beneficial as she could axe her commute time, therefore improving productivity. Although firms are usually team-based, there are so many collaborative platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business, that lawyers are perhaps more connected at home than ever before. 

Ultimately, whilst COVID-19 has presented countless challenges, it is evident that the virus has pushed for positive change to modernise the legal industry.

Report written by Rowenna Allen

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