By Lavanya Shankar
Who would have thought an ‘Invisible enemy’ like disease could control our entire world?! Ever since our history of the Plague & WW2, this has been the worst pandemic faced by Man-kind to cause unprecedented global health & socio-economic crisis. We are now in a world of long-term uncertainty where we have been forced to condition ourselves to learn and adapt to the ‘new normality’ through changing our lifestyle, work ethic, and increasing use of technology.
Digitisation & Remote working
Covid-19 has catalysed significant change in the UK’s legal industry. Digitalisation has been the key priority amongst businesses and professional services for donkey’s years. Well, Yes, you’ve guessed it right! It has always been the reluctance of our traditionally conservative, archaic, and risk-averse nature of lawyers to the modern outlook of technology. It wasn’t until recently, the global pandemic’s commercial pressure triggered the long awaited evolution in the legal profession. Although there was limited time to prepare for this transition, we demonstrated achievement and proved the conversion from the impossible to ‘I’m (the legal profession is) possible!’ Whilst the use of technology brings positive opportunities and ease of accessibility, it has also illustrated challenges that remote working cannot be heavily relied upon nor made 100% on a permanent working basis. On a more optimistic note, there is a myriad of effective collaborative tools that made it easy to operate and readily accessible. As the prevalent modern digital era questions our conventional working habits of pen and paper, collaborative practices, and methodology of completing assignments - our mindset has permanently changed under the pandemic’s influence. It has tested our human competencies of communication, adaptability, patience, and tolerance; coping with pressure; flexibility, and creativity to implement client delivery and student online teaching.
The widespread social distancing and teleworking measures have become the ‘new norm’ for law firms and students; courts and how hearings proceed. Law firms have witnessed increased productivity and more diverse options offered to clients. The significance of flexible working policies to lawyers is key in the work-home balance of commitments; the avoidance of lengthy commutes and provide a greater degree of control on the ‘how’ and ‘when’ to do work. Clients would have accessibility to wide-ranging online resources in developing legal knowledge without the inconvenience of travelling into the office and providing more comfort. The use of cloud based platforms for information and file distribution has become beneficial to everyone like employees to work on various matters from any location at any time. Courts and judicial systems have had a greater reliance on the use of telephone, video-conferencing, and other digital communication methods in the administration or settlement of cases.
However, an increase in digitalisation also creates a range of potential problems including potential data breaches and weakened confidentiality; clients demanding more in-person facetime from lawyers for accountability and productivity purposes; effects on the training of junior professionals; the prevalent issue of stress, isolation, and anxiety related implications on the mental well-being of legal professionals and the reduction in remote working productivity without safeguarding measures. The financial pressure on clients is likely to compel law firms to replace the traditional hourly billing model with alternative fee arrangements such as fixed fees. The greater reliance on automation with legal technology streamlining documentation and practice management will be increasingly deeply integrated into future legal practice.
The only certainty is the need for a balanced positive response of the willingness to adapt and considerable planning using risk assessments concerning work culture and health and safety to new upcoming and continual changes or risk being left in the dark. It emphasises the legal industry in utilising this pandemic to ensure that it is readily prepared to embrace a more flexible, creative, and agile way of operating with profound importance to well-being awareness. This could potentially involve a mixed and balanced approach of remote working and in-person to effectively mitigate risks and controversial implications. We are still in the ‘trial and error’ phase of experimentation and only time will determine the future.
Effects on which Legal Practice Areas?
Banking & Finance
Governments and Regulators are heavily reliant on financial institutions to stabilize the economy. They have started to introduce some incentive schemes to rent the collapse of the economy. For example, ‘The Eat out to help out,’ scheme would be funded by banks and financial institutions. So banking lawyers would have to negotiate the terms of these agreements.
Despite Covid-19, it will continue to apply. However, if there are potential suspected breaches, regulators have issued statements/ warnings and also conducted investigations. Grocery shops have been significantly impacted because competition law prevents these shops from co-operating with other stores. In response, competition regulators have had to guide permitted co-operation. This would result in competition lawyers advising more current clients including grocery shops to prevent competition law breaches than new clients on mergers and acquisition structures. This is because the latter advisory matter has been reduced by the virus.
Globally, many businesses have reduced their operations or now cease to exist. Hence, Mergers and Acquisitions have either been postponed or cancelled. This means corporate lawyers would be less occupied with little work activity. However, once back to ‘normal,’ they may become very busy as business deals would restart.
The government had started a ‘Furlough scheme’ covering 80% of an employee’s wages. However, there is uncertainty as to what will happen when the scheme ends on 31st October 2020. This would result in Employment Lawyers committing to deal with a lot of advisory work for clients as to the next steps. If companies decide to make many employees redundant after the scheme, employment lawyers would need to advise on how to do this in a procedurally fair manner to avoid litigation.
Lawyers would be advising on how to pay off tax debts in a way that doesn’t overwhelm companies. At present, the government has relaxed tax deadlines but tax payments will be due in March 2021.
In Europe’s bond market, markets had stopped for about 2 weeks after Covid-19. Recently, issuing volumes have returned and it’s difficult to predict the long-term impact. However, it appears to be largely unaffected for now. Initially, as markets slowed down, Debt Finance lawyers had probably found their work in slow progression. As markets are gradually picking up now, their work would not have changed much. As for equity capital markets, Initial Public Offering (‘IPO’) markets have generally closed due to Covid-19. However, investors have continued to support existing listed companies and fundraisings of equity capital market have ramped up. Hence, equity finance lawyers will be advising current clients rather than new clients or trying to arrange the approval of new public listings on the stock exchange.
There will be increased disputes about the frustration of contracts and the use of online trials and tribunals. This has resulted in a debate about cybersecurity risks, data protection breaches and the online platform has impacted on Access to Justice.
Intellectual property (‘IP’)
Many intellectual property offices worldwide have announced changes and extensions to different IP deadlines.
Following the closure of various businesses (including shops, restaurants, and other companies), lawyers would be advising landlords about their new leasehold obligations under the new Coronavirus Act 2020.
Mental Health concerns
Our profession is well-known for its high levels of stress and anxiety due to the nature of legal work, deadlines, and dealing with various clients. As a result, this popular phenomenon of well-being has become increasingly important for legal providers and services to effectively manage their employees’ mental health. According to recent data, many lawyers have been seeking professional support since UK’s March lockdown. A Legal mental health charity, Law Care, identified three key concerns: home working; furloughing financial issues/pay cuts, and other mental health problems (relationship strains, childcare issues, and forceful working during furlough). It is reported that they had received 130 contacts (including helpline calls, webchats, and emails) since 10th March 2020, with 37% specifically related to Covid-19. Law Care’s Chief executive, Elizabeth Rimmer, describes this as the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and anticipates many more legal professionals will contact in the upcoming weeks for emotional and financial support.
If you are feeling any form of distress, please contact LawCare’s UK contact number: 0800 279 6888 OR support email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Covid-19’s revolutionary progression in the delivery and consumption of legal services has officially marked the end of an old era and prompted the new, radical transformation of the UK economy’s success - our justice system!
So… Why COVID Commercial Awareness? tips:
New 2020 upcoming Interview questions:
How has Covid-19 affected the legal profession?
What specific legal practice areas are least/severely affected in terms of work activity and economic impact/financial implications?
What did you do during Covid-19? (ie: Be productive in using your time wisely to brush up on the effects of COVID-19 in the legal sector & participate in virtual work experience opportunities)
Impact on Mental Health & Access to Justice