Legalweek(year) 2021 Shows Why the Industry Isn’t Going Back to Normal

Association of Certified E-Discovery Specialists (ACEDS)

Legalweek was originally supposed to take place in New York this year, as it always does. However, for 2021 it was transformed into a series of five interactive virtual events held throughout the year—hence the updated title of Legalweek(year).

We’ve previously published recap articles for the opening event, which took place on February 2 – 4, as well as the events held in March and April. This article will discuss the final sessions (July 13 – 14) and provide five key takeaways from the overall event.

Things Are Going Back to Normal, Right?

As Legalweek concluded in the middle of July, one couldn’t help but reflect on how things had evolved since the first sessions in February. At the start of 2021, the United States was still dealing with a third wave of COVID cases and the future seemed uncertain. Now most restrictions have been lifted and we’re enjoying a remarkably normal summer compared to that of 2020—beaches are busy, restaurants are open, sports teams are again competing inside sold-out stadiums, and toilet paper aisles are reassuringly stocked.

But even if we do manage to put the pandemic completely behind us in the coming months, it’s clear that the legal industry is entering a “new normal.”

Scott Galloway, Professor of Marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business and author of Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, says that: “COVID-19 has initiated some trends and altered the direction of others, but its most enduring impact will be as an accelerant. Take any trend—social, business, or personal—and fast-forward 10 years. Even if your company isn’t living in the year 2030 yet, the pandemic has spurred changes in consumer behavior and markets.”

This certainly seems to be the case when it comes to the legal sector. According to many speakers and panelists at Legalweek, the industry looks very different today than it did at the end of 2019. Here are five post-COVID trends that will shape the industry in the coming years and force organizations to evolve.

1. A War for Talent   

The difficulty of landing great talent amidst a massive industry-wide hiring spree was a common talking point during Legalweek, with one speaker stating that “hiring competition is as fierce as it’s possibly ever been.” Everyone seems to be hiring, which means applicants are spoiled for choice—and it’s difficult for smaller firms to compete with the large institutions that can pay massive salaries. How many firms can pay first-year associates $200,000 a year, as Milbank started doing in June?

Many of the larger firms have predictably followed in Milbank’s footsteps by upping salaries. Others, however, are rethinking traditional payment and development models. According to Mark Medice of the LawVision consultant firm, many firms could start rejecting lockstep pay for associates.

“The market value of associates in different practices is starting to look different because of demand in the marketplace, and that has a potential ripple effect in terms of how you might pay them, on strategies for development, on strategies for using contract lawyers,” he told Law.com.

Additionally, Medice argues that this trend could impact firm operations on a wider scale. Organizations might choose to invest more in automation, or increasingly partner with technology companies and alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) to improve efficiencies and reduce workload.

2. The Rise of Remote Work

Job applicants aren’t basing their employment decisions on salary sizes alone—the ability to work from home (or anywhere else) is arguably an even bigger consideration.

“The first question isn’t about salary anymore, it’s about the company’s flexibility regarding location and remote work,” said one speaker during a session titled Culture Shock: Returning to the Office. “Flexibility now really helps with hiring—it is a big attraction.”

The same goes for the retention of valuable employees, many of whom aren’t terribly excited about the prospect of a return to the office. A survey conducted by Major, Lindsey & Africa—and discussed during the abovementioned session—showed that around 60% of people were reluctant to return to the office, and only 21% of respondents saw themselves returning to the office every day.

While the office is unlikely to disappear completely, the pandemic has shifted norms and expectations around working from a physical office five days a week. Some kind of hybrid model seems to be most people’s preferred option—and organizations will be forced to adjust and adopt flexible remote work policies, especially if they want to attract and retain top talent.      

3. Adoption of New Technology

There is no question that the pandemic resulted in the adoption of technology on a scale and timeline that is almost unthinkable under any other circumstances. Court hearings, all the way to the Supreme Court, were suddenly being conducted over Zoom, and legal professionals found themselves collaborating with colleagues or meeting with clients entirely through technology. 

As Scott Galloway argues, COVID caused an acceleration of existing trends—these technologies were already in use, but the pandemic fast tracked adoption in an industry that is conservative under normal circumstances. And now that these technologies are out there “in the wild,” there’s no going back. The use of technology in the legal sphere has jumped ahead by a decade.

But there is another side to this story. The legal profession was obviously not alone in its adoption of technology—just about every company in every industry had to rely on technology to keep operating during 2020. This meant there was an explosion of data sources. Conversations moved from boardrooms and offices to online tools like Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams—and all these conversations are now discoverable. Thanks to communication and collaboration tools, companies are being forced to deal with more electronically stored information (ESI) than ever before, and they will need to implement new processes and solutions to do this effectively.

4. Increased Focus on Privacy and Data Security

We’re seeing a steady increase in privacy and data security regulations—a trend that will only intensify. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) will soon be joined by regulations like the Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act (VCDPA) and the Colorado Privacy Act—and it seems increasingly likely that we’ll see the creation of a federal data privacy law in the coming years.

Globally, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will soon be one of many data privacy regulations that companies need to adhere to; countries like Canada, New Zealand, Brazil, India, Singapore, Thailand, and even China are in the process of instituting privacy laws, or have recently done so.

This will force companies to improve their information governance processes and gain better insight into the data they hold. Data Subject Access Requests (DSARs) and Right to Erasure Requests will become commonplace, which is why sophisticated data mapping will be crucial.

In the legal profession, the impact of privacy regulations will extend beyond data retention and information governance. eDiscovery professionals need to consider the implications of data processing laws during collection, preservation, review, and production of evidence, as these activities will be required to conform to the same data privacy regulations as other parts of the organization.

5. New Fee Structures

As legal firms adapt to a new landscape, continued use of the traditional hourly rate will often be a challenge. Use of contract lawyers and ALSPs will play a part in this, but technology will be the key driver in the adoption of alternative fee arrangements (AFAs).

Just consider a new technology like AI review. An AI tool can dramatically decrease the amount of time spent reviewing documents, but this technology certainly isn’t cheap, so the cost has to be passed on to the client. But how do you do this through a traditional hourly rate?

As one Legalweek speaker said: “The efficiency and practicality of automation and other solutions will necessitate a new approach.” 

According to panelists of the Unboxing the Cost of Legal Services session, legal firms will need to get better at pricing technology— and even move towards the sort of product pricing that modern SaaS companies employ.

The fact of the matter is, technology is changing the legal landscape—it’s facilitating remote work, changing the nature of discovery, and forcing legal teams to rethink how they operate. If there was one key message from Legalweek(year) 2021, it was that all legal professionals need to embrace the current technological shift. Those who refuse will find themselves quickly becoming irrelevant.

Start Spreading the News!

Legalweek will be back in New York for its 2022 event, and will run from February 1 – 3. The official website for the 2022 event hasn’t launched yet, but more details should be forthcoming soon.

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