The business of lawyering is undergoing a transformation that is as dramatic as it is still little recognized even by many in the profession.
As has been the case with so many other sectors of the economy, the COVID pandemic accelerated changes already occurring. Most obvious has been the rapid deployment of technology in ways that few in the field would have predicted even as recently as the beginning of this year.
Court appearances, hearings and chambers’ conferences that just months ago had to be conducted in person, are now routinely handled by video and phone. Legal filings are accepted online. Clients meet with their lawyer remotely. Law schools are teaching entirely online.
“The pandemic has liberated the legal industry from compulsory attendance at legal sanctuaries — offices, schools, and courthouses,” writes lawyer, legal entrepreneur and law professor Mark Cohen. “In a matter of weeks, the legal ecosystem became more agile, fluid, collaborative and efficient. This transition occurred with remarkable speed, pervasiveness, absence of resistance, and overall effectiveness.”
These innovations were born out of necessity. Courts couldn’t simply shut down completely, so judges and lawyers and their support staffs switched to the online model many other businesses did.
Now that the experiment has, as Cohen notes in his commentary on Forbes, “illuminated the opportunity for reimagining and improving upon old ways of delivering legal services, learning, and resolving disputes,” a complete return to tradition is unthinkable. “The genie is out of the bottle.”
The transformation, though, is not purely technological. Cohen points to Arizona and Utah, where the high court in each state approved sweeping programs to change law’s business structure and open the door to admit non-lawyers to the practice.
In August, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously authorized a pilot program to test changes enabling “individuals and entities to explore creative ways to safely allow lawyers and non-lawyers to practice law and to reduce constraints on how lawyers market and promote their services.”
Later that month Arizona’s high court removed a long-standing rule that prohibited non-lawyers from owning a law firm and other alternative business structures. The court’s order also permits the licensing of non-lawyers as paraprofessionals who will be able to provide some legal services to clients, including representing them in court.
The courts in both states established committees more than a year ago to study ways to improve access to legal services, so the two announcements didn’t come as complete surprises. Anticipating a loosening of the legal rules and recognizing the transformation of the profession, Deloitte, PwC, EY, and KPMG began enhancing their legal consulting practices.
Cohen says The Big Four “are each supplementing their legal talent pools by hiring well-known lawyers and business of law experts in an effort burnish their ‘legal’ credentials.”
As CEO of The Digital Legal Exchange, Cohen has a stake in promoting the transformation, especially the digital transformation, of the legal profession. Still, the evidence he cites and the articles he references, many written by him, makes a compelling case.
“Law,” he concludes, “Is not solely about lawyers anymore, and digital transformation, accelerated by COVID-19, will transform it just as it has its customers.”