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Comment: Will the COVID Crisis Change How Lawyers Collaborate?

Working remotely during the COVID crisis, video conferences have replaced meetings. Beyond meetings, how effectively do legal professionals collaborate and work in groups? Ron Friedmann asks, can we do better?

Ron Friedmann, strategic legal technology consultant and advisor

Forward to the 21st century when developers designed many applications specifically to support groups:

Collaboration improves problem-solving, productivity, and innovation. In normal times, lawyers and legal professionals collaborate in conference rooms, their offices, or other common areas. Working remotely during the COVID crisis, video conferences have replaced meetings.

The work from home (WFH) experience with video, however, prompts more fundamental questions. Beyond meetings, how effectively do legal professionals collaborate and work in groups? Can we do better?

Many other professionals regularly collaborate with groups outside of meetings. They use software purpose-built to coordinate groups and solve problems together. Lawyers, in contrast, use software mainly to pass-the-baton, not work in teams. Now and in the future, in the office or WFH, should we rethink the software lawyers use to collaborate.

Most legal market software supports individual work. It was not designed for group work or real-time collaboration. I started thinking about that distinction in 1997 for a presentation I gave to senior management of a legal publisher:

1997 Slide #1

Back then, I observed that software can be designed to support individuals, teams, or institutions. I went on to observe that the most frequently used software in law firms was for individual work:

1997 Slide #2
PIMS : Personal Information Manager DMS: Document Management System

My views and design sensibility(!) have changed since then. I realize calling email team software is wrong. One look at a long thread with content unrelated to the subject should persuade you of that. And while DMS supports group work, it’s more about sharing documents and much less about real-time and active collaboration. It’s better for linear / sequential collaboration.

Contrast the software lawyers use today with 21st century software designed specifically to support groups:

  • Multi-person chat (e.g., AIM, Slack, or Google Hangouts)
  • Group screen share and video (e.g., Zoom or Google Hangouts)
  • Shared task management (e.g., ToDoist, DoneDone, Trello, or Asana)
  • Joint authoring (e.g. Google Documents).

I have worked at home since 1998, usually as part of remote teams. I used all of the parenthetically cited products. For example, Google Documents excels at supporting joint authoring. It allows simultaneous editing (seeing co-authors’ changes in real time) and easy commenting with threading.

I see few law firms, law departments, government, or lawyers in non-profits regularly use comparable tools, even during lockdown (aside from video). Though lacking in scientific or statistical credibility, I share here the results of a Twitter poll I conducted asking about this:

I suspect this poll overstates the actual use of software designed for people working in groups. Pre-crisis, the only instances of regular Slack use I heard about in law firms was in IT departments.

Three legal market surveys back up what I have seen personally:

  1. ILTA’s 2019 Technology Survey (executive summary) covers one dozen applications in one question. None relate to working in groups.
  2. The 2019 Aderant Business of Law and Legal Technology Survey asks about 18 types of software, none focused on working in groups or real-time.
  3. The CLOC 2019 State of the Industry asks about two dozen types of software, none explicitly about collaboration.

Does the COVID crisis create a new mindset that allows a rethink, a path to using software that would enable better collaboration? And if we do not rethink how we work, that implies we believe how we work today is just fine. In my view, legal organization leaders should consider whether to support and encourage their professionals to adopt new ways of collaborating and working together in real time.

Sudden and abrupt work from home has caused many legal professions to learn new software and ways of working. For example, lawyers wed to paper files in the past now get by with way less paper. And lawyer who have never used video conferencing have mastered it. Change is already happening.

Why stop there? Why not optimize both WFH and work in the office once we return? We have an opportunity to move toward more, and more effective, collaboration with purpose-built technology for groups and real-time collaboration.

Maybe that move is too big a burden. Maybe it will face resistance. But now is the ideal time: minds may be more open now than in the past. And I believe the firms that take advantage of this crisis to improve the how of work will thrive more post-crisis.

Ron Friedmann is a lawyer by training and has three decades of experience in the legal market. He helps lawyers and legal business professionals solve their toughest strategy, practice, and operational management challenges. He writes at