The Future Of Law Is Virtual And Remote, And It’s Happening Now
Jennifer McGlone Chief Legal Officer
The majority of this article was first published on 5/22 in the Daily Journal
First change came for doctors, then it came for therapists, lawyers and even litigators. Now that the United States Supreme Court is holding hearings virtually and remotely, you know it’s game over. The future of law has arrived in full force, spurred on by swift adaptations for the way the law works during the coronavirus pandemic, and we’re not going back. Clients are no longer traveling to their lawyer’s offices; they connect by text, phone, or video. Legal services are being delivered on-demand.
Documents are being signed, and if needed, notarized and filed, entirely remotely. Forget that handshakes are currently taboo; entire deals are being negotiated and closed without the parties ever being in the same room. Business correspondence is no longer going through the mail as contractual notice is routinely given and accepted by email. Many courts are accepting documents that are e-signed, e-served, and e-filed. Virtual and remote hearings, even trials by videoconference, are next.
There was a time when e-commerce was in its infancy, when people had the novel idea of selling and delivering groceries remotely. People said “no mother will let you choose what apples she is going to give her family.” They were wrong. There was a time when nobody thought people would buy books remotely. People thought that the experience of browsing the aisles was key to the experience. They were wrong, as you are most likely reading this article on a device.
People thought nobody would buy clothes without trying them on. Now so many consumers are embracing the virtual shopping experience and skipping the in person shopping process that major retail chains are walking away from brick-and-mortar stores. Change favors on-demand, virtual and remote purchase and delivery.
Professional services are catching up. Modern technology has enabled doctors and therapists to consult patients by using HIPAA-compliant video conferencing technology and electronic follow-up. Similarly, attorneys can now securely consult with their clients via video conferencing, and follow-up electronically, while maintaining attorney-client privileges. This means that clients will start to expect tele-legal, just as they have embraced tele-medicine.
Times are changing: The future has arrived
As the Chief Legal Officer of Court Buddy, a legal tech platform that matches solo and small firm attorneys with individuals, families and small business owners, I have navigated through these changes. We stay with the attorneys and clients for their entire relationship -- whether that relationship is for a one-off engagement or an entire trial. The clients do not need to be physically near their attorneys. They want to speak with them, even see them but that can be done through technology and face-to-face meetings are not required. The handshake is not coming back.
The #1 question clients ask us when signing up for Court Buddy is “when can I speak to an attorney?” They never ask “can I meet with my attorney?” Both attorneys and clients want to communicate virtually and remotely, usually, via their smartphones. Texting is the most common way they communicate. Our clients find us through mobile more often than from a desktop; historically, almost 75% of our traffic comes from mobile.
While perhaps Court Buddy clients and attorneys are ahead of the curve in their willingness to embrace technology, the way they are communicating is becoming more common as businesses find ways to carry on, even while everyone is sheltering in place.
Goods were the first thing to be easily and remotely delivered via technology. Those who have embraced technology have pivoted relatively easily during the pandemic and are well-positioned to move forward.
Attorneys are innovating
Attorneys, like everyone else, have been forced to close doors during the coronavirus pandemic. They are offering to meet and consult with their clients from home, via video. Once they see that it works -- and often more effectively and efficiently -- whole vistas open up. Attorneys can work with their clients from their homes, from anywhere. They no longer have to be a predominantly urban service profession servicing an urban clientele.
The ability to deliver justice to rural areas, where lawyers are scarce, has long been a pronounced social problem across our country. But if internet access improves, attorneys can easily serve far-flung clients. As the delivery kinks get worked out, tech may well point the way to a fairer and more efficient justice system, where more citizens get more representation for less.
Once they embrace tech, attorneys can better realize efficiencies as service professionals. In these last few months, I have had attorneys and paralegals routinely telling me that they find that they are more efficient -- not less -- when they work from their home offices.
What we are seeing is that solo and small firm attorneys -- who are essentially small business owners -- have decided to stop paying rent on office space. They picked up their laptops and went home because they had to do so, but they are finding that it works for them and their clients. Having a physical office space is not necessary to work and it eats into profit margins.
“I don’t need a big open loft space to just sit there and look at my partner and my office staff,” said one NYC attorney and Court Buddy member. “It’s too expensive, anyway andI’d rather put that money into salaries for my staff, or otherwise invest back in the business.”
This time, the courts are in agreement
When the United States Supreme Court reopened for business May 4, 2020, it took the historically unprecedented step of hearing oral arguments by phone. If Supreme Court Justices can embrace tech and move with the times, so can your typical practicing attorney.
While many federal cases have been put on hold, certain criminal cases and bankruptcy cases are proceeding in federal courts. Bankruptcy courts have canceled tens of thousands of in-person meetings between debtors and creditors, installed a significant number of phone and videoconference lines and prepared for an anticipated onslaught of bankruptcy filings. If it is working in federal bankruptcy court, it can work elsewhere.
State courts have shown themselves capable of adopting virtual operations by embracing e-filing, e-docketing, and setting themselves up for remote hearings and potentially even trials. While not all state courts will have the financial wherewithal and infrastructure to immediately pivot to remote court proceedings, there is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is speeding up these trends in the profession.