Legal practice management during and beyond COVID-19

September 1st, 2020
x
Bookmark

The world is currently facing a huge challenge in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. This situation presents many challenges and uncertainties, as well as new opportunities for businesses. It is no secret that many businesses, which are not founded and grounded on the right business values and principles, will not survive to operate another day. Well-documented business strategies and visions that are not fine-tuned to adapt to the challenges, may not make it. Gone are the days of rigid and stagnant ways of operating a business. It is time for a business to be positioned in a way that embraces change without overhauling too much of the current status quo.

Although the current situation, poses a lot of unknown and undefined new risks to legal practices, locally and globally, law firms that can adapt swiftly to the changing environment will have a good chance of surviving this storm. It is true that many of the processes and systems in place will be rendered useless and not viable in this new environment. For any business to be successful, including legal practices, those in positions of authority must adopt methods that conform to the existing environment.

In recent years, technological advancements have been introduced to the world and yet, many companies still prefer the traditional ways of doing business. It is now time for the business sector to realign and relook at their strategies and set their focus on technological innovations that deliver new service offerings to their clients and customers. The same applies to law firms. A law firm’s success will be determined by how legal practitioners are willing and able to effectively tap into technology. In addition to that, certain aspects of the business would require special attention as well. Some of these aspects are discussed below.

Engagement with clients

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no longer safe or advisable for legal practitioners to conduct face-to-face consultations with their clients. Even though certain regulations may be adhered to, for example social distancing, hand washing, sanitisation and the wearing of masks, the risk of being infected with COVID-19 is still very high because of the uncertainty of human behaviour and the consequence thereof can be unthinkable. Law firms, therefore, must consider having consultations via secure virtual platforms. It is also true that there are certain risks that come along with such platforms, therefore, it is important to investigate ways to reduce this risk. The cost of using such a platform can also be a determining factor, but the expense can be shared with the client, provided it is discussed upfront. Virtual platforms such as Zoom, allows for the sharing of important documents and/or signed mandates.

Engagement with employees

Now that it is not possible to have every employee at the office at the same time, working from home has become the ‘new normal’. Close supervision of individual employees becomes difficult and reliance is now placed on employees to be more disciplined and honest. The use of virtual platforms for regular updates and meetings has become of paramount importance. Employers are realising that working from home produces almost the same results and the employee probably gets more work done. This realisation might result in many law firms opting not to have physical offices or limit the amount of office space required in the future. This will result in reduced office rental costs for law firms.

Engagement with other stakeholders in the legal profession

The legal profession generally prides itself on being conservative. The change brought about by COVID-19 has forced many professions, including the legal profession, to adopt new ways of doing business, including the adoption of information and communications technology (ICT). The concept of electronic filing of documents, virtual court sessions and a paperless office are being adopted by the profession at a very slow rate. On the other hand, most of the people who use legal services have always derived satisfaction from consulting their legal representative face-to-face. COVID-19 brought in the new norm, where court sessions are now conducted virtually, electronic filing has taken centre stage and clients are now e-consulting with their legal representatives.

These changes have brought with them business efficiencies, which are linked but not limited to efficient client service through ICT and the reduction of expenses for office space. The other side of these advantages presents several negatives, which include, job losses for support staff, empty offices as more staff can now work virtually and challenges around the issue of the assessment of a witnesses’ demeanour during a trial.

Human Resource (HR) management

The HR department plays a vital role during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of taking care of the welfare of both the organisation and that of the staff. The HR management function, has a responsibility to play a leading role in enhancing a cultural shift from the ‘old normal’ to the ‘new normal’. The HR function should focus on areas, such as the upskilling and reskilling of employees, as well as employee wellness in this difficult time.

  • Reskilling and upskilling: According to the Cambridge dictionary ‘upskilling’ is ‘the process of learning new skills or of teaching workers new skills’ (dictionary.cambridge.org, accessed 1-8-2020) and ‘reskilling’ is ‘the process of learning new skills so you can do a different job, or of training people to do a different job’ (dictionary.cambridge.org, accessed 1-8-2020). During the COVID-19 pandemic, a business must find ways to train their employees in order to improve their efficiency when executing their duties and responsibilities. For example, the upskilling of ICT skills to enhance remote communication.
  • Employee wellness: The recognition of mental health and wellness issues is very critical during and beyond this pandemic. The current state of the economy is dull and financial and job insecurity is a concern for most employees. This uncertainty will trigger many wellness issues, such as but not limited to, depression, anxiety, stress, etcetera. Therefore, one of the HR’s functions include developing strategies and programmes to create awareness and support for employees. For example, partnering with the Independent Counselling and Advisory Services or other organisations, which deal with programmes pertaining to employee health and wellbeing.
Risk management

It is critical for law firms to be aware of how to manage new risks arising from COVID-19. Depending on the size and complexity of the firm, different risks will be faced and different mitigating factors must be implemented. Law firms must develop risk-adjusted models that assesses their risk as often as possible. The risk-adjusted models will be driven by ever changing government regulations and laws, changes in employee behaviour and market forces.

Conclusion

Legal practitioners are sailing in unchartered waters and there are many uncertainties about what the future holds. Some can find comfort in the fact that, in the past there were other pandemics, such as the HIV/Aids and H1N1 virus, etcetera. This past knowledge can be used to navigate through this storm. There is no one universal solution to this situation but our ability to adapt and become flexible to this environment will surely determine our fate.

Joel Zinhumwe (FP) SA CFE Bcompt (Hons) Accounting Science/CTA (Unisa) BCom (Hons) Accounting (MSU) is a Practitioner Support Supervisor at the Legal Practitioners’ Fidelity Fund in Centurion.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2020 (Sept) DR 5.