Coronavirus: Testing Tech Competence in Law

01 April 2020

There has never been a time where technology competence has risen to such a level of urgency and necessity in the legal profession than right now.

The Supreme Court of New South Wales in Australia said on Thursday that it would be taking steps to ‘minimise the need for parties to come to the Court’ through the use of online courts and video and telephone conferencing.

In the UK, emergency measures have been tabled to establish virtual criminal and civil courts and to allow a greater number of proceedings to be held via telephone and video.

Around the world, firms are closing their offices. Faegre Drinker recently closed all 22 of its offices around the world, stating that its employees are ‘equipped with the required technology to work remotely and remain ready and available to clients’.

All of a sudden, lawyers and other legal professionals are working from home, engaging with clients and colleagues completely remotely, and being forced to navigate new forms of online courts.

One would assume that this is a task that 2020 is ready to handle. However, some firms and some lawyers are not ready. With some predictions predicting that the UK could be in some form of lockdown for up to 6 months, this is a scary time for some. But, as more firms are forced to close their offices globally, travel restrictions continue, and more courts are forced online, a new normal may emerge from the crisis – one that relies more heavily than ever on technology and the cloud.

The firms that are ready to tackle this period are those that are prepared in every way to work virtually. They are the firms who host their practice management systems in the cloud and have secure systems in place for collaborating and conferencing online. Perhaps even more importantly, their staff have been properly trained in using these systems and can navigate them without too much assistance. For them, this is surely inconvenient, but not a true disruption to their work.

However, it isn’t like that for all firms.

There are thousands of firms whose computer systems only operate locally, within the office. Perhaps more surprisingly, there are many firms who still rely heavily on paper filing systems and have very little infrastructure for their staff to work offsite – and no idea where to start.

Then there is the issue of training. Many lawyers remain largely untrained in technology – some, proudly resistant to learning, and some who have just not taken the time.

It’s hard to know the exact state of the profession’s readiness and preparedness for an extended crisis. However, according to the 2019 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, 84% of law firms say they have some form of remote-access software available to their employees, and only 66% of solo practitioners have such technology.

That same survey said that just over half of all firms have any sort of document or management system – let alone a cloud-based system – and only 37% of solos have such a system. Almost the same stats apply for access to case or practice management systems. In total, according to this survey, only 58% of lawyers are using cloud-based systems in their practices, with the most commonly used system Google Docs.

What this suggests is that a good portion of the profession is ill-equipped to ride this out if an extended period is what is called for. Whilst there are firms who have been bolstering up their tech and making themselves ‘future ready’, the drive to do so has come so suddenly for many firms that this may be a bumpy ride.

We are likely to see a dramatic shift in the way firms and solo practioners look at the technologies that are available to them from a handy tool to an absolutely necessary lifeline – like generators in a hospital. At the very least, we expect to see the foundations for an online judicial system laid out in the coming months, with full adoption coming earlier than previously expected.

We at Route1 hope that you are safe and well during this period and wish you all the best. 

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