Looking back to the beginning of the C-19 lockdown, I shared the trepidation of many in the legal marketplace – that the overnight move to delivering legal services remotely was likely to cause severe disruption to the business of law. With the benefit of hindsight some five months later, it feels to me that rather than a systemic dislocation in the legal market, the pandemic has driven a rapid evolution of the way lawyers, in-house legal teams and legal service providers work, and in many cases the virtual working model has seen an increase in productivity across our and our clients’ teams. Being wholly office-bound and delivering legal services on-site now seems an out-dated concept.

When the global economy normalises, businesses are going to be looking for ways to reduce costs through downsizing their physical workspaces, and looking to integrate virtual and flexible practices into their daily work environment. Prior to C-19, some law firms and inhouse teams were increasingly affording team members the ability to work remotely at least part of the time and were beginning to operate in an increasingly virtual world when it came to their consumption of legal services. Concerns around effectively conducting training, meetings, client interface, colleague collaboration and team and risk management, had however hindered a wider move to virtual working in the legal workplace.

As global lockdown restrictions ease, lawyers and legal teams working remotely are realising they have enjoyed increased flexibility and that legal work can be effectively provided from outside the office some of the time and for certain work-types. I and many colleagues and clients experienced this first-hand – being able to operate productively from a safer more rural environment at the height of the pandemic, without having to expose families and colleagues to the increased risks of commuting and close working conditions was a genuine benefit. The rapid transition to remote working proved that law firms, companies and legal service providers have the ability, through technology, to put the processes and tools in place to enable virtual working.

There is no doubt that the pandemic and the resultant remote working experience dramatically changed the way law firm and in-house legal teams both deliver and consume legal services, but it appears to me that many clients found the shift less dramatic. They had already become more sophisticated in their consumption of legal services, and with globalisation, improvements in technology, and economic pressures, expectations that legal services can be effectively delivered virtually had already become a reality.

The new landscape

In my previous roles as a lawyer in private practice and later leading in-house teams in the banking and finance sector, I, like many legal team-leads and GC’s, could not have contemplated leading and managing even a small part of a high-functioning team virtually on a sustained basis. Until joining Cognia Law, I had not appreciated the extent to which we had already been successfully delivering embedded (as opposed to outsourced) ‘virtual’ legal service teams – enabling clients to quickly and cost-effectively access remote top-class technical expertise or additional capacity, by flexibly and virtually deploying the right talent to the right work at the right price. Nothing pleases me more than to receive glowing feedback from a senior member of a sales team at a client on the performance of one of our teams – expressing surprise, that even though they’d worked with our team for a number of years, they assumed they were …“located in the legal department, in the building – not sitting over 9000 kms away!”

That is not to say the transition to an increasingly virtual world is not without its pitfalls; the kind of tasks that lawyers work on often require close guidance of more junior team members and coordination across teams dealing with high-value projects and matters with tight deadlines that require extraordinary attention to detail. They key is to identify those core tasks or work-types that require close on-site face-to-face collaboration and supervision, and those that can be resourced through high-intimacy virtual collaboration, while maintaining the ability to readily pivot between the two models as required.

Essential to any virtual solution is close client integration, effective project management, technology integration, collaboration and the use of systems and processes, to drive greater efficiency and accountability in the execution of the work. Virtual legal teams operate optimally on work requiring standardised practices, templates, playbooks and toolkits, to deliver high volume, lower risk projects and activities without compromising on quality and accuracy. This enables additional capacity to be added in a virtual manner at relatively low cost and risk. Productivity needs to be monitored through KPIs and metrics to ensure the work product is delivered on time and on budget, and efficiency and consistency is achieved through the right use of technology as an integral part of a successful virtual delivery model.

Leading the change

Much has been written about the pace of change in legal industry and I don’t intend to add to the volumes here, but based on my day-to-day experience in delivering legal services over the last 5 months, the C-19 lockdown experience has catapulted us, willingly or not, into a more virtual world of law. With the easing of lockdowns globally, the legal industry will need to recalibrate to meet the realities of this more virtual world. To quote my colleague Joel Segal in his recent article entitled “A Systemic Approach to the Future World of Law”:

“…it is fair to say the impact of CV-19 – the “black swan” which nobody saw coming – has galvanized us towards a tipping point for changing how we.”

As leaders in law, we need take ownership of new routes to future success, by mapping solutions that integrate seamlessly with clients, which can scale from predominantly on-site resources, to a hybrid of on-site resources and virtual fully-managed, multi-skilled off-site and off-shore teams, enabling higher-quality services at a lower cost. Based on Cognia Law’s success in delivering a range of legal services through the hybrid operating model over the last five years, it requires an integrated approach that minimises value leakage and maximises cost management, by working in partnership with clients’ in-house teams and panel law firms, to set the tone for an increasingly virtual world where, as a result of C-19, all the rules are still forming.