The Business of Law

Law Firms That Embraced Remote Lawyering Became More Profitable During COVID

By Greg Garman
September 24, 2021

Some say the old adage “survival of the fittest” is misleading. In reality, Charles Darwin’s famous conclusion is better described as the survival of the most adaptable. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything (and hopefully it has), it is that adaptability is key. Our economy and workplaces are changing rapidly on a local, state, and global scale. 

The legal industry is no exception. 

It may come as no surprise that the law firms that were quickest to adapt and respond to changing circumstances in 2020 fared the best in the short-term. However, firms that embraced the technology that enabled remote lawyering in 2020 did more than just survive - they thrived. Moving forward to a post-pandemic world, there is no doubt that attorneys who continue to utilize legal technology will continue to see peak success.

To firms without New York City big law legal operations budgets, the adoption of technology may seem cost prohibitive, unrealistic or impractical. The thought of using artificial intelligence and building safeguards to boost cybersecurity may put additional stress on the mental health of already stressed attorneys.  But, even small, incremental changes can lead to quantifiable advantages for attorneys, clients, and firms alike. 

In this article, we’ll take a look at some figures that illustrate the changes happening right now in American law firms - from the perspective of:

  • Attorneys who want more of a work-life balance, 
  • Clients who want immediate, convenient, affordable access to legal services, and
  • Law firms that must ensure long-term profitability and success. 

While much of this article focuses on the changing data from 2019-2020, we’ll also discuss how these trends are likely to continue in the future. Whether we are ready or not, we are entering a “new normal,” where employees and customers have changing expectations. For law firms especially, it’s imperative to know how to appeal to clients as well as how to attract and keep top-quality talent employed. 

That being said, let’s start by considering the evolving needs of lawyers and law firm employees - because a happy and committed workforce often translates to satisfied clients. 

Remote Lawyering Offers the Flexibility Legal Professionals Want in a Law Firm

In years past, young lawyers left law school to work at a brick-and-mortar firm - often putting in 100-hour (or more) workweeks (to the detriment of their other commitments) to have a chance of one day reaching the enviable position of partner. Not only have younger lawyers been steering away from this path, but the coronavirus pandemic also made lawyers of all ages resentful of the traditional firm model. 

According to a Thomson Reuters survey taken earlier this year, less than 10% of lawyers want to go back to working five days a week in the office. Over the past year, many lawyers discovered they can be just as productive (if not more) with remote working arrangements than they were in the office. While younger lawyers tend to have aspirations other than making partner (nearly 30% say they’d rather end up as in-house general counsel), more than 8 out of 10 lawyers (of all ages) are saying that they want to work for a firm with work from home flexibility. 

In a nutshell, attorneys are looking for greater work-life balance, and firm leaders that offer flexible working options have a competitive advantage when it comes to recruiting top talent.  The best way for your firm to succeed while allowing team members to work full-time from home is to make sure they have the tech tools they need to stay connected and efficient. 

Yet, the legal sector has been slow to adopt changes - and law firms were some of the first to return to the office. For the most part, this can only be linked to a reluctance to change old systems, because many big law firms saw their income increase by an average of 10% last year (despite remote work arrangements). 

Legal Clients Prefer Firms That Use Technology to Enhance Their Services

The 2020 Legal Trends Report presented by our friends at Clio reported that clients ranked the following factors as most important when hiring a lawyer

  1. The firm has good reviews and/or recommendations,
  2. They offer lower prices and/or discounts,
  3. Payment plan options,
  4. Fixed fee services,
  5. The lawyer or firm serve the community,
  6. I can pay electronically with credit or debit cards,
  7. They accept/share electronic docs and e-signatures,
  8. The firm offers unbundled legal services,
  9. They use software to organize firm operations,
  10. Firm information is stored with cloud technology, and
  11. They provide subscription plans for legal services.

Ranked dead last at twelfth among prospective clients was the presence of a commercial (brick-and-mortar office space). In a word, a physical office had little effect on a law firm’s success in 2020. All other factors can be achieved virtually and are tailored toward enhancing a client’s online experience with the firm. 

In contrast with many other industries, law firms, on average, saw profit increases in 2020. Some of this was due to savings on commercial real estate rent and the overhead associated with maintaining physical office space. Another factor playing into 2020’s continued profitability for the legal industry is based on shifts in consumer preference

Despite some smaller firms’ hesitation to shift to a virtual model, consumers report a preference for firms that use technology to enhance their service offerings. Today’s consumers want an immediate response to their legal questions - with most losing patience if they have to wait 10 minutes or longer (Hubspot Research Consumer Customer Support Survey, 2018). Likewise, customers expect their attorneys to be available on multiple channels, from answering questions on the firm’s website to answering texts, emails, and phone calls. 

A single landline is no longer enough to satisfy your clients’ need for interaction. Of course, this is a tough ask for lawyers who are in and out of meetings and court all day. This is where customer service and CRM software come in handy. During the pandemic, consumers adopted online communications which enabled them to interact with businesses remotely. More than half of consumers (56%) said they prefer video conferencing over a phone call. These changes were not exclusive to law firms. Teladoc Health (a service providing virtual medical appointments) more than doubled the number of patients served between the third quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020. 

Law firm clients also want to access their documents on-demand and the ability to pay bills electronically. Through the use of online payment portals, law firms can offer subscription-based payments, as well as payment plans. While 72% of clients would prefer a legal payment plan, only about 53% of firms are equipped to offer it - creating a marketable opportunity for those firms ahead of the curve. For many clients, payment plans also improve access to justice as they can help lawyers serve those who may not be able to afford a large, up-front retainer. 

Even consumers who used digital channels for the first time in 2020 expressed their intention to continue using digital channels when the U.S. economy returns to normal (something that isn’t expected to occur for a few years). The use of technology will likely never return to pre-pandemic standards as consumers and lawyers have adapted and found countless benefits to meeting virtually. 

The Intersection of Employee Satisfaction, Customer Service, and Law Firm Profitability

One of the most difficult parts of running a profitable law firm is determining which investments in legal tech yield the most bang for your buck. For solo firms, it looks like the most valuable technological additions were client intake and CRM software, client portals, and electronic payments. The addition of these three tools helped firms gain more than $24,000 in additional revenue from 2019 to 2020. All firms that added those tools (regardless of size) saw at least $18,000 in additional revenue in the past year. See, Clio 2020 Legal Trends Report

Let’s take a closer look at how each offering benefits attorneys, clients, and firms alike - forming a perfect storm in a changing legal profession.

Client Intake & Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Software

Client intake and CRM software help attorneys manage the intake, engagement, and post-engagement process with new clients. Intake software enables potential new clients to book appointments directly on your calendar through your website. You can also streamline the process with digital intake forms where potential clients provide case information quickly and efficiently.

The simplicity of a streamlined, virtual intake process can provide your firm with an advantage over firms that take longer to arrange appointments. From an attorney’s perspective, online intake software also promotes the prompt exchange of information needed prior to a consultation such as completing a conflicts check.  

CRM software extends the convenience of online communication beyond engagement by letting firms add workflows for routine matters and keep in touch with clients on a regular basis via tools like email campaigns and newsletters. Together, client intake and CRM software help firms manage client relationships, communications, generate more casework, and reduce the number of lost opportunities. 

Client Portals

Client portals increase customer satisfaction by facilitating access to information and documents. For firms, client portals can reduce the number of meetings and one-on-one interactions between attorneys and clients, so attorneys can spend more time on billable work. All the while, sensitive information is stored securely, in compliance with ethical obligations to create the best of both worlds: accessibility and security. Many practice management solutions have client portal features built in to their systems.  

Giving your clients access to a portal can help them review the case calendar and double check the dates for upcoming events such as a mediation or court hearing.  The portal can also allow clients to view and download their case documents such as discovery, pleadings or even transactional documents like estate planning.  Allowing clients direct access to such a portal also cuts down on attorney and staff time spent answering basic questions about the case calendar or emailing copies of documents to clients.   

Meanwhile, for firms, portals allow for the sharing of case files anywhere one has secure internet access, so attorneys can share work with firm partners as well as clients (even from home). 

Electronic Payments

Business continuity and collections were major concerns during the early stages of the pandemic. Firms equipped to process electronic payments opened up to 6% more cases than firms not utilizing online payments. This translated to collections greater than $10,000 more per lawyer in 2019. This figure is projected to increase to more than $15,000 additional per lawyer for firms that accept e-payments this year. See, Clio 2020 Legal Trends Report

Not only do e-payments speed up the payment process, but they can also support payment plans, subscription offerings, unbundled services, and flat fees that appeal to clients. Being equipped for non-hourly billing isn’t just a competitive advantage for firms, it helps more clients afford legal representation because they have certainty about how much they will be paying.  

The fact of the matter is that today’s legal clients want the ability to pay electronically.  Period.  This is a no-brainer way for you to make it easier for your clients to do business with your firm and for you to get paid.  

Technology Can Help Your Marketing Strategy

As firms continue to embrace remote lawyering, new technological tools can give them a competitive edge. Digital tools like e-books, webinars, and search engine optimization can be used to increase leads and connections with new clients. The most successful remote attorneys also market the services that make them more convenient and unique - Zoom/Video consultations, payment plans, online portals, and quick responses are appealing features that help attract today’s clients. 

If you offer these types of tools, be sure to add that information to your website so potential clients know all the ways you make it easy to work together.  For some clients, the thought of meeting face-to-face with a lawyer can be intimidating and even challenging if they have to make arrangements for time off from work.  Clients want to know that you can work with them remotely and efficiently, saving them money while simultaneously offering exceptional service.   

Essentially, service standards that were once thought impractical are possible for tech-wise law firms who aren’t afraid to adapt.  If you’d like to read more about proven legal marketing tactics, here is additional suggested reading

LAWCLERK Can Help Your Firm Adapt to a Changing Legal Marketplace

At LAWCLERK, we help modern lawyers adapt to the ever-changing demands of the business of law without a steep learning curve. Whether you’re the managing partner of a firm looking to outsource some work and maximize your bottom line, or a freelance attorney who would like to exercise control over their schedule and work, we can help achieve your goals. 

Either way, LAWCLERK provides a flexible way to grow and scale your practice, on your terms. For more information about how we can help firms and freelance lawyers, we invite you to visit our website at lawclerk.legal or schedule a demo HERE.  

Greg Garman is a founding partner at Garman Turner Gordon LLP, a boutique law firm with a national reputation in the area of corporate debtor representations in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.  Greg is also a co-founder at LAWCLERK which provides virtual associates and freelance lawyers to growing firms focused on increasing their profits.  

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