By John Espley, Chief Executive Officer of Legal Futures’ Associate LEAP Legal Software UK 
Through acknowledging the challenges that law firms currently face in the COVID-19 crisis, this article discusses how leaders of SME law firms can maintain productivity, use the downturn to improve their business, embrace digital change and recognise new opportunities as we emerge into the new normal.
Stage 1 – Initial outbreak: Mobilise and adjust
This crisis has brutally exposed the different paradigms in which law firms operate. There are law firms that have invested in technology to mobilise and digitise, making the adjustment to home working and virtualising their businesses seamless. Meanwhile, office-rooted law firms have been unable to make such a successful transition, having a large impact on their productivity.
Law firms with limited mobile capacity have struggled. Predominantly paper-based practices initially continued to work from their offices with risk to their teams, and then when working remotely had to transport their paper files to their homes, bringing the risk of breaching legal privilege and client confidentiality.
Law firms have had to address the following priorities to ensure basic business fluidity:
- Ensuring work is an activity and not a place by providing all employees with the right technology to maximise productivity (web camera, high specification laptops, dual screens). Effective solutions to collaboration should also be entertained.
- The accurate and continued recording of time. With staff working from home it is vital that a practice continues to capture time effectively, ensuring that work is being carried out and staff activity remains transparent.
- Maintaining two-way communication is essential. Wherever possible the experience of visiting your practice should be replicated with face-to-face communication via the likes of FaceTime or Zoom. This time spent also needs to be captured accurately within your firm’s practice management system.
- ‘Right-size’ your practice and ensure that you are operating lean, not incurring expensive overheads with obsolete technology or unnecessary support contracts.
- If you have investable capital, ensure that your business has the right technology and platforms to work digitally.
- This is an unprecedented situation. Make strategic decisions. Decisions which you make to save money now may not benefit your business in the long-term.
Stage 2 – Surviving lockdown: Take stock, develop, and improve
The current lockdown and any resulting downturn in the amount of work generated, although not great news, does present you with a good opportunity. Use this time wisely, take a step back, focus on improving your business and evaluating the future of your practice. This is the time to fine tune processes, assess performance, train staff and research the market to better position your business on the other side. Key areas you should consider are:
- Refocusing existing resources. Are there better performing areas of law that you practice in that you can switch your resources to? Can you generate enquires for current work types through increased marketing? Wills work has clearly increased significantly, and employment disputes will undoubtedly grow.
- Developing and upskilling staff and paralegals to assist, so that as work volumes recover you can grow without increasing overheads and headcount. Online guidance tools are available from a variety of publishers and you should ask your current software provider if they offer this integration.
- Performing a technology audit, understanding what components you are missing that would provide your client with a complete digital experience.
Stage 3 – As restrictions relax: Communicate and adapt your firm’s identity
Restrictions will have a significant impact over the next 18 months, so being able to work from any location at a moment’s notice is essential.
The volume of work law firms receive is expected to increase as restrictions decrease, and being able to scale and adapt your business quickly will be important.
Law firms that have been smart will benefit and those that have not will be significantly weaker. For example, reduced staff numbers may hinder service levels and response times and for law firms that can react and transact quickly it will be an opportunity to attract new clients. To be successful you must:
- Have the ability to engage with your client digitally and market your firm on the basis that you have the right tools such as video calls, online digital payments, document sharing and E-signature solutions. Prospective clients will use this as a future criteria for placing business.
- Ensure that mobile working becomes an everyday part of your company culture and not just a temporary fix. It is important that your staff can work from home without it affecting a client’s service experience.
Stage 4 – The light at the end of the tunnel: Secure the competitive advantage
By maintaining efficiencies and embracing change your law firm will have become lean and agile, able to handle the unexpected and exploit market opportunities as an expected resurgence in enquires takes place. When the pandemic ends the legal industry will have changed forever. The most adaptable law firms who realise this change by using an innovative approach will continue to succeed.
One of our clients, Gideon Cristofoli of Bookers and Bolton Solicitors, told us: “This pandemic is going to revolutionise the workplace and how we work. It’s the realisation that you have not been using technology as you could, and now we are, we should be doing this all the time.”
LEAP offers fully remote implementation to law firms across the UK and Ireland to help expedite the transition from a server-based set-up to the cloud, enabling staff to be working from home as quickly and as effectively as possible. For more information visit leap.co.uk .