As I was adjusting my three-year-old’s mask before walking into daycare this week, it struck me that he no longer even puts up a fuss. Two years into the pandemic, that’s his normal for most of his life. I found myself doing what a mom shouldn’t do when their child was already complying, telling him “don’t worry sweetheart, it won’t always be like this. We won’t always have to wear masks.”
Two years in and we are naturally craving things “going back to normal.” As a human, that’s an understandable and valid instinct. But as a business or an industry, it can mean we’ve been living in stasis for two years, just trying to survive. Worse yet, it could mean we aren’t trying to learn from forced change, just get through it with the expectation that it is only temporary and will soon revert.
For the legal industry, 2022 needs to be the year where we stop getting by and start implementing lessons learned from the past two years. The pandemic, as awful and unwelcome as it is, has given us all a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink what a workplace is, how we want to spend our time, how we can accomplish tasks, new ways of being inclusive, how we serve our clients, how we employ technology, how we can give back to our communities, how we can be more efficient and so much more.
This is our chance to be intentional–to take back control and say we are going to lay out clear paths forward, giving all our stakeholder groups, and our businesses, an improved roadmap that we dictate with the benefit of two years of intense learning.
Those broad themes mentioned above impact every segment of the legal industry, but each sector has its own unique opportunities as well. Below I offer some thoughts on key themes impacting different pockets of the profession. These are gleaned from a combination of my talking with members of the industry and those insights shared from my esteemed colleagues across ALM’s global newsroom. Upfront disclosure: I don’t profess to have the answers, other than encouraging a critical lens on these topics with an eye toward ensuring the right people at your organization are thinking about them and given the tools to implement the change that they determine could carry the profession forward.
Let’s start with law schools, because really, that’s where it all starts. We of course saw questions over online vs. in-person education and testing, relevancy of bar exams and changes to on-campus recruiting in response to pandemic restrictions. Did we learn anything there that could be carried forward, not because we have to but because we can? Law students continued to exercise their voice, putting pressure on other pockets of the industry to do right by the world. They have law firms’ attention. But law departments and law firms alike still also need more practice-ready, business-minded lawyers. How can law school curriculum finally better match the needs of the market, focusing not just on substantive acumen but the use of technology and understanding of real-world business issues? How do law schools make a meaningful difference in the profession’s diversity problem, because, again, it all starts with law schools. They have the power to affect so much of what the rest of the industry looks like and how it functions.
Talent wars is a theme in and of itself, but I’ll look at it under the law firm lens. Firm leaders are clearly working to get back to some form of in-office work, though they admit that will likely never be five full days in the office again. Attracting and retaining talent has become an incredibly expensive proposition, at least in Big Law, with trickle-down effects to the rest of the law firm world. Firms have explored hiring where they don’t have offices, flexible work arrangements and uniform pay scales despite geography. Firms are walking a tightrope of balancing the needs of clients and their desire for value on one end with pressure to retain talent. But what if the same solution worked for both? Rather than cling to the traditional business model, are there ways to work smarter that benefit everyone? What has been learned in the last two years to help answer that question?
And while it may all start with law schools, it all comes down to the client. In this instance, I’ll focus on corporate law departments, which, like law firms, are equally trying to figure out talent management, remote work and tech adoption, to name a few things. The idea of corporate purpose is palpable for this segment, which has a growing number of stakeholders focused on the issue, from talent, to regulators to shareholders and the general public. Identifying corporate purpose and mapping that to the business’ stakeholder groups will be a major initiative in the coming year and beyond. So, too, will the need to better meet the broader business’ needs, whether that be through smart contracts, understanding a growing patchwork of global regulatory issues, assessing data as it relates to outside counsel and so much more.
Segments of the industry aside, there are major lessons to be learned across the profession as well. Access to justice is one. During a time when demand for paid legal services skyrocketed, we still saw a huge spike in pro bono hours in the past two years. Much of that was attributed to the ability to do the work remotely. How can we as an industry figure out how to carry that momentum forward? The judiciary will be a big factor in that discussion as well.
Diversity, equity and inclusion is another huge area of opportunity. In many ways, remote work created more opportunities for different segments of an organization to purposefully interact. And with no one down the hall to throw a case to, many firms began utilizing technology to better assign out matters based on more objective criteria. Discussions around social and racial justice in the country became much more real and frequent. How do we ensure we don’t lose that momentum? How can we ensure we are moving up the ladder from hiring to true equity and inclusion that will give diversity initiatives staying power?
The need to focus on mental health can’t be understated. We gained a common understanding as a people over the last two years of what it felt like to be anxious, depressed, burnt out or overwhelmed. Nothing anyone would want, but let’s find the silver lining. Maybe as an organization you have more empathy for your teams? A dispersed workforce puts an even greater onus on organizations to check in on the well-being of their people and create environments that foster that well-being.
The past two years have taught us what we don’t need, what we can do differently, and how quickly we can change when forced. If we took those lessons and added in some deeper strategic thinking, how could we change the profession for the better, forever and on our own terms? Don’t let this opportunity go to waste.
About the Author
Gina Passarella is editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer. She has covered the business of law for her entire career, first as a reporter and special projects editor with The Legal Intelligencer in Pennsylvania and then as senior editor for business of law in ALM’s global newsroom. She took over as editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer in January 2017.