For most of us, there’s never been quite a year like 2020—who knew? Well, the LPT Editorial Board may not have seen it coming, but we’ve put on our finest fortune-telling gear and provide bold predictions for what 2021 might have in store for attorneys and the legal profession when it comes to law practice—the business of law—in the coming year.
Thank you to our LPT board, the many great editorial contributors, the leadership and members of the ABA Law Practice Division, our behind-the-scenes team of Lauren DeGroot and Jim Austin, and most importantly, our loyal readers. We predict many more great issues of LPT in the year to come.
—Amy Drushal and Micah Buchdahl
Mental Health Fallout
There’s little question that the ripped Band-Aid of March’s remote revolution has shaken up law practices with technological and financial impacts. I believe the far more serious and totally unquantified effects will be the consequence of working adaptations on mental health for lawyers and non-lawyers who braced for impact and have sailed on through. Whether battling kids, work, mealtimes, and the non-stop landscaper next door or soldiering on conspicuously alone, the ever-dependable professionals have churned it out month after month, transforming what used to be office hours into almost every waking minute of life in their own home. Employers must at the very least communicate well and support their employees through employee assistance programs. Lawyers who are unable to be “away from the keyboard” are in the process of burning out while cracks in the life of a family threaten to grow into real “non-work” issues. On top of it all, few Americans have been totally untouched by a worrisome health crisis. Whether and how we cope with the stress or not, the televised belief that there may be no end in sight only shrinks the image of a foreseeable escape out of the tunnel.
—John Bowers, Chief Operating Officer, Patterson Intellectual Property Law, PC, Nashville, TN
If you haven’t figured out by now how to maximize the value of video conferencing, I have a middle school student in my house that is extremely proficient in it, as are most kids in the U.S. But nine months of living in online spaces, for court hearings, depositions, law firm meetings, and lots of organizational conferences, has led to serious burnout. The Harvard Business Review wrote about combating Zoom fatigue in April! The use of these tools is not going away in 2021, or anytime soon, but they will be slowed-not necessarily because we’re back to normal, but because we are trying to cut down on time spent in front of a computer screen that is not totally necessary. This includes many virtual conferences and events chopping schedules as viewership and interest shrinks. Make no mistake, Zoom was a lifesaver. But, like anything, too much of a good thing…in 2021, less screen time (and eventually more real-time).
—Micah Buchdahl, LPT Associate Editor, Attorney, HTMLawyers, Inc., Moorestown, NJ
In Florida, where I am a litigator, electronic filing is the norm and our civil courts seamlessly transitioned to remote hearings when the pandemic hit. Civil court judges have actually been more available since there have not been a lot of jury trials. However, I don’t need a crystal ball to predict at some point soon, when jury trials resume, the court system will be faced with an incredible backlog of criminal and civil jury trials—some that have been continued repeatedly for nine months or more. In Florida, civil jury trials likely will not take place in the year 2021. I’m sure my colleagues throughout the country are faced with similar situations. So while this will be incredibly frustrating for attorneys and our clients—as some cases may sit without resolution for years—the backlog may create an opportunity for growth in the use of alternative dispute resolution. So justice may be delayed, but it will not be denied. And growth of ADR should be a beneficiary.
—Amy Drushal, LPT Editor in Chief, Partner, Trenam Law, Tampa, FL
Back to the Office, or Staying Home?
Post-pandemic, many lawyers will eagerly shed their athleisure wear and race back to the office. In-person meetings will be all the rage, and law firms will begin to emphasize this to clients and prospects as a differentiator.
However, we’re likely to see a marked gender disparity in who works from where. A January 2020 study from Oxfam showed that among full-time American workers, women perform two hours more work at home daily than men. I think male attorneys who previously clocked 10-12-hour days at the office before finding themselves at home performing more domestic tasks than ever before – or being told they should be doing so – may revel at the thought of returning to the “norm.” Women lawyers who found they could accomplish greater work-life balance with the flexibility that working from home has enabled – regardless of whether they received more domestic help – may be more reticent to revert to a full-time office regime. I may be accused of stereotyping or sexism, and indeed, I hope I’m wrong. Undoubtedly, some men will have relished the additional time at home with their families, among other benefits, and will want to have a remote component to their workweeks going forward, and some women will be thrilled by the thought of abandoning their home offices. But expect to see, on balance, offices where men have an even more outsized presence than pre-COVID-19.
—Nick Gaffney, Founder, Zumado Public Relations, San Francisco, CA
Running with the Silver Lining
For firms that were holding back on modern changes, the pandemic has shown that some of this work-from-anywhere stuff isn’t such a bad idea. The nudge has jump-started many lawyers’ creativity and inspired them to invest in technology initiatives, to take advantage of the flexibility and speed offered by cloud-based solutions and paperless systems. In 2021, we will see a mushrooming of technology-legal collaborations and adoption of remote-capable technology solutions, as lawyers see possibilities and improve their systems. Some firms will “optimize” absolutely everything at once — even their buzzwords — giving their staff a case of technology-overload before they realize one change at a time works better. Firms that don’t make changes will continue to fall behind financially, as their lack of efficiency becomes apparent and clients gravitate to the firms they find easier to work with.
—Charity Anastasio, American Immigration Lawyers Association, Washington, DC
For Senior Lawyers, a Jolt of Technology (and Reality)
Predictions are always fun to do and on occasion can be right on point—but not lately! Who could have predicted what our profession, our practice areas, and the world has gone through in 2020 with the pandemic! Our crystal ball for 2021 still seems a little murky with COVID-19 not only persisting but getting worse, even with the hopes of vaccines on the horizon. Murky though it may be, my crystal ball shows more and more older lawyers hanging it up as technology continues to shift our practices to online communications and away from in-person meetings, away from hearings in court and toward Zooming and online filings, and away from what many of us grew up with—going to offices and libraries to meet clients and colleagues, do research, visit around the watercooler, to where we are now practicing out of our homes with our dog as a companion to bounce our ideas off. In 2021 our offices will be smaller, they will likely be on the first floor without an elevator, and they may not be downtown but rather closer to (or in) our homes. We will continue Zooming with clients, colleagues, and courts with fewer in-person meetings and we will continue to rely more and more on technology to practice law—or not.
—Mark A. Robertson, Partner, Robertson & Williams, Oklahoma City, OK
Videoconferencing technology has been the lifebuoy of 2020, but 2021 will see the use of advanced video production, as we will become less tolerant of its real-time drawbacks. Videoconferencing exposes us to low-quality images, connection problems, and other follies (“John, you’re on mute”), that tax our patience with this technology. We will come to appreciate how a short video in an asynchronous format will expedite our meetings and appearances. Lawyers will become adept in producing and distributing high-quality videos with the latest equipment and software, without having to out-source its production to a crew of audio-visual specialists.
—Ramón L. Viñas-Bueso, Attorney, Viñas Law Office, LLC, San Juan, PR
Improved Access to Justice
The increased reliance on technology to interact with courts will help reduce the justice gap for low-income populations that have unmet civil legal needs. Courts have made information and resources more readily available to the public in an effort to minimize visitors to the courthouses during the pandemic. This will create an expectation of access to the court system that will endure long after the pandemic abates. States will funnel more resources to court system technology making it more widely available to the public and reaching populations beyond members of the bar.
—Afi Johnson-Parris, Attorney, Johnson-Parris Law, Greensboro, NC
Focus on the Soft Skills
My prediction for 2021 is a renewed focus on self-development—technical (expand a practice area) and soft skills (resilience, emotional intelligence (EQ), relationship management, communication, etc.). The demands and stressors on lawyers (ongoing pandemic fatigue, increased use of technology, too much isolation and too much togetherness, balancing family and work where there are no longer any boundaries, renewed growth in work demands, and the fact that lawyers are in a helping profession where everyone they help feels the same demands and stressors they do) scream for a solution. Taking control over our internal environment, our physical and mental health, and our soft skills, compensates for the lack of control over our external environment.
—Susan Letterman White, Managing Partner, Letterman White Consulting LLC, Boston, MA
Content is king. Always has been, always will be, but it’s also everywhere. The importance of digital marketing, and more importantly having a digital marketing strategy, has been amplified by the pandemic. Limitations on traditional business development activities like social events, conferences, coffees, and dinners, are likely to remain in place for a while so lawyers will need to connect with clients and prospects in other ways. Law firms will continue to develop content, but more emphasis will be placed on strategic delivery of that content to ensure it’s being seen by the intended audience and not broadly disseminated. This means both thoughtful identification of the target client and an understanding of the best medium to reach them, particularly as younger generations move into decision-making roles. The way content is consumed continues to evolve so we’ll continue to see webinars, but also more podcasts and videos. The most important part of all will be what kind of data you gather and what you do with it—how can you replicate the personal connection through digital channels and turn that into meaningful action?
—Andrea Malone, Chief Marketing Officer, White and Williams LLP, Philadelphia, PA
Changes in the Pay-per-Click Landscape
In mid-2020 Google’s new ad format—Local Services Ads—began rolling out for lawyers. While Google has a long history of gradually updating the presentation of search results to more prominently feature ads at the top page, this represents the most significant change we’ve seen in a long time. The new Local Services Ads (LSA) placements appear at the very top of the page, pushing down the traditional Google Ads placements. This could make top-of-page placements for traditional Google Ads even more competitive (translation: more expensive). While it is not yet clear what the net result will be for attorneys advertising in Google, LSAs will likely be shaking up the pay-per-click advertising landscape in 2021.
—Jason Marsh, MARSH8, Winter Park, FL
The Rise of New Law Firm Models
Remote lawyering by force, rather than by choice, caught lawyers off guard and unprepared. As the health crisis abates (hopefully), lawyers will maintain their remote work style, although will couple this with a part-time brick and mortar presence. This will lend itself to rented “as needed” conference rooms or shared office space. The abundance of rental options will increase. Having embraced the convenience of the remote lawyering experience, clients will expect both options, giving the edge to the versatile lawyer. Online platforms will be competitive, calling for lawyers to continually update their technology, skillsets, and cyber awareness. Older lawyers will benefit from partnering with new lawyers with their technology prowess, while the young lawyers will benefit from the substantive knowledge of the seasoned lawyer. The online model will also see a decrease in employees in a practice. Lawyers won’t want to manage remotely and will rely upon “pay-per-service” options, such as contract lawyers, virtual support, and artificial intelligence.
—JoAnn Hathaway, Practice Management Advisor, State Bar of Michigan, Lansing, MI