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An Updated Look at eLawyering and Virtual Law Firms: The Opportunities and Challenges of COVID-19
USC Gould School of Law

Friday, November 20, 2020

Home office setup.

Virtual law practices began to emerge as early as 2006 when the American Bar Association created the eLawyering Task Force. The concept has become increasingly popular in recent years as technology helped to advance the opportunities for remote work.

Virtual practices — also known as distributed law firms — are a hot topic in 2020. Virtual firms have already been operating the way most of the world has had to operate in response to COVID-19. As highlights, virtual firms are hiring people who have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic crisis. These firms signing experienced attorneys who were already working from their home offices in response to COVID-19. Proponents say it’s not unlike working for a traditional law firm with geographically diverse offices, where teams in different locations collaborate on cases.

Of course, this situation is not right for everyone. But could it be right for you?

An Unexpected Paradigm Shift

As early as March 2020, firms began instituting precautions for in-office work and encouraging attorneys to work at home if their personal situation warranted it. It was a big change for Big Law.

As an editorial in Bloomberg Law® reminded its readers, “Big Law is in many ways defined by its space. Office leases are generally the second highest expense in a law firm budget. For partners who grew up billing 60 hours a week at their desk, the office is a second home.”

Yet, as lawyers and clients began to test positive for coronavirus, offices shuttered. Many were concerned about productivity and availability of remote coworkers. For some firms, virtual practices are a temporary scenario to keep workers healthy at home until it is safe to reopen. For others, there is no turning back, as the distributed model pays dividends in cost savings and other efficiencies.

A Lesson in Learning to Pivot

Technology plays a key role enabling lawyers thrive in a virtual environment. They can see their colleagues in real time via videoconferencing while also managing their personal and family lives more effectively.

Large firms are finding that they can reduce their physical footprint. They are saving money by closing offices without compromising on quality in the legal services they provide. For these groups, the hope is that this experiment in elawyering will prove successful enough to continue.

On the other side of the equation are those who are experiencing greater stress and anxiety as a virtual lawyer. A recent poll conducted by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) found that over half of the respondents (53%) reported working more hours than when they were in the law firm office.

Seventy-five percent claimed moderate to high levels of burnout, with 43% experiencing anxiety. There were also reports of tiredness and trouble sleeping (50%), problems with concentration (40%), increased substance abuse (22%) and depression (19%). Some of this is not a surprise, as we know coronavirus has taken a toll on people in all professions all over the world.

However, despite these concerns, the majority of respondents (84%) still felt positive about the work they were doing. Many had also discovered new opportunities to decompress with online fitness and yoga classes, virtual books clubs and other online activities with friends. The ACC believes its study will help firms address the needs of virtual lawyers as the trend continues, as well as provide insights to wellness needs of today’s legal professionals.

ABA Coronavirus Task Force

The American Bar Association (ABA) has created a Coronavirus Task Force of volunteer lawyers and judges to help provide for legal needs specific to COVID-19.

The task force website also provides tools to help lawyers work virtually with the courts, many of which shut down entirely during the early days of the pandemic.

Some tools and resources provided include:

  • Ways to engage in remote teambuilding.
  • Ways to reframe your mindset to promote resilience and happiness despite the circumstances.
  • Ways to ensure work-life balance when working remotely.

Each district within each state has its own plan for returning to business, but all types of proceedings, criminal and otherwise, will be delayed for months to come.

There are ABA member-only webinars, as well as free access to resources from Bloomberg Law, the National Association of Bar Executives, the National Institutes of Health and others. The ABA’s Student Division, “Before the Bar,” also has information to help law students in dealing with COVID-19 and its impacts on learning.

The Future of eLawyering

Virtual law firms are likely here to stay for those with a culture and workstyle that can adapt to the new way of conducting business. According to a piece from The American Lawyer, “the pandemic has demonstrated that telework is feasible for almost every firm employee and many legal activities, including court hearings, arbitrations and mediations.”

The article goes on to speak of the efficiencies of being able to work on other cases while waiting for a mediator, as well as of improvements that have been made to states’ e-filing systems out of necessity. There have also been differences in the type of services being requested by firms, with an increase in some specializations such as health care law and bankruptcy.

All of these changes give law students and newly minted lawyers an opportunity to rethink their career goals. Traditional lawyering might not be as enticing as it once was due to lasting impacts from COVID-19. Dreams of the city life with a daily commute to the firm may be replaced with plans for a quieter existence in the suburbs. New specializations might emerge in the post-pandemic years, some of which are not even on the radar yet.

COVID-19 changed everything overnight. Your new goal might be elawyering with a virtual law firm, overriding all previous ideas of what a law career should — or had — to be.

Taking the Next Step

The shifts created by the pandemic have also cemented the value of online learning as a safe and efficient option. If you’re interested in advancing your law career or want to add continuing education to your existing portfolio, consider the flexibility of an Online LLM degree from USC Gould School of Law.

Sources: August 2020 April 2020

Bloomberg Law

The American Lawyer (1)

Association of Corporate Counsel

American Bar Association

The American Lawyer (2)