By Kym Voorhees Raque
To say 2020 was a game changer is an understatement. Whether you were deemed an essential service or forced to manage government-mandated closures, every business sector was affected by the pandemic and the subsequent safety protocols put into place.
The legal industry was no different in having to adjust and pivot in terms of how business was conducted. According to area firms, many of those changes will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Though no one can predict the future—after all, no one would have predicted 2020—here are some of the major industry trends experts believe will shape the legal profession in 2021.
Improving the client experience while managing safety protocols
Flexibility, organization and technology were the keys to servicing clients in 2020. A shift from in-person meetings to virtual meetings and from working in an office to working from home required firms to implement new strategies and shore up existing business practices. Maintaining these new practices and executing safety protocols will continue into 2021.
According to Branden Gross, managing partner at the Lexington office of Dentons Bingham Greenebaum, his firm accelerated plans to implement new technology that has allowed them to work with clients safely and effectively throughout the pandemic. The firm plans to “upgrade and streamline our technology and processes in 2021, specifically through our proprietary Dentons Direct portals, to provide excellent client service,” Gross said.
Bob Hoffer, managing partner of DBL Law in Northern Kentucky, said his firm maintains regular contact with its business partners and clients to ensure their needs are being met. They will continue to use webinars and other on-line resources to elevate the client experience, he said.
Maintaining a safe environment for those returning to the office and clients who want in-person meetings is something all firms will continue to address in 2021.
According to Taft A. McKinstry, managing member at Lexington’s Fowler Bell, her firm has constructed see-through barriers in all conference rooms, requires masks and social distancing and has hand sanitizer in all common areas so clients can feel safe during in-person meetings. These procedures will remain in place for the safety and security of staff and clients, McKinstry said.
Making use of emerging technologies to improve service
With remote work a reality, upgrades and use of new technologies is something most firms are focused on in the coming year. 2020 was an eye opener, shining a light on areas of strengths and weaknesses. A strong technology platform will be essential in 2021.
Goldberg Simpson is in the process of investing in and upgrading all its IT protocols, according to Jan M. West, a member of Goldberg Simpson in Prospect.
West said the firm is migrating to Zola Suites, which will replace three of the software packages the firm currently uses.
“Zola Suites is giving us the ability to increase billable hours, manage caseloads more efficiently, electronically store documents and manage accounting functions under one umbrella,” she said.
McKinstry said Fowler Bell moved their systems onto a cloud-based server during the pandemic, which allows staff to work remotely from anywhere in the world.
According to J. Tyler Dinsmore, managing member of Flaherty Sensabaugh Bonasso’s office in Charleston, W. Va., his firm had remote technologies in place prior to the pandemic but said the firm’s in-house video recording and editing systems have proven invaluable as more conferences have been moved to a virtual platform. Dinsmore said the firm’s in-house IT team remains vigilant keeping client information secure while assessing ever-changing threats and technologies.
McBrayer also made use of cloud sharing and video conferencing last year.
“The technologies we relied in 2020 enabled us to minimize in-person interaction with clients while still participating in face-to-face communication,” said McBrayer Managing Member James H. Frazier III. “Video calling, electronic signature software, and cloud document sharing took the place of interactions normally done in person while keeping everyone safely distanced. In 2021, these will continue.”
Developing practice niches to increase business
After a brutal 2020, many businesses are looking to make up ground in the coming year. For law firms, specializing or building niche practice areas is one avenue many plan to take to attract clients and boost revenue.
“Our newest niche practice is ExcelExchanges, a DBL Law affiliate qualified intermediary agency assisting investors with 1031 exchange transactions. Moving into 2021, we plan on instituting a DBL Law Mediation Service while utilizing our experienced litigation and business expertise,” said Hoffer.
Last year, McBrayer added 10 attorneys in various practice areas and launched two new teams–corporate deals and estate planning, according to Frazier.
“With the addition of powerhouse attorneys in both these areas, we are combining the best of boutique and comprehensive legal practice,” he said.
According to Gross, the pandemic presented new practice-area opportunities for his firm.
“Our clients are facing an incredible range of challenges stemming from the continued COVID-19 pandemic and they are seeking our guidance in new and different ways. Early in the pandemic, we created the Dentons COVID-19 Pandemic Client Special Situations Team, focused on emerging client needs such as stay-at-home orders, CARES Act guidance, PPP loans and other federal funding options,” said Gross.
West says her firm also foresees additional work due to pandemic-related litigation.
“We expect expansion in the commercial litigation and employment practice areas, as we are seeing increased litigation due to COVID-19 and related economic issues,” she said.
Addressing diversity, inclusion and equality
In addition to a global pandemic, 2020 brought to light issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Like many other business sectors, the legal industry had to take a hard look at itself and identify areas of improvement.
“Unfortunately, the legal industry has historically lacked diversity, and various events in 2020 brought these systemic issues to light within the legal community,” said Kathryn A. Eckert, senior attorney at McBrayer. “McBrayer’s Diversity and Inclusion committee is working diligently to expand and emphasize our firm’s commitment to diversity.”
According to Eckert, the firm is recruiting attorneys and staff across a variety of diverse platforms, including affinity groups, and building relationships with local law schools to identify diverse job candidates. In addition, the firm is planning to require diversity training for all its employees in 2021 and will begin implementing the Mansfield Rule to improve representation of diverse lawyers in the firm’s leadership.
“The Mansfield Rule requires that firms consider at least 30% of historically underrepresented lawyers for 60% or more of the firm’s leadership roles and activities,” she said. “We believe these steps will begin to create the systemic changes necessary to foster long-term inclusion and equity in our workplace as the firm continues to build a diverse and inclusive firm.”
Gross said Dentons Bingham Greenebaum offers a diversity scholars program for first-year law students that includes a position in the firm’s summer associate program to help attract diverse talent. He said the firm also participates in the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD) 1L Diversity Fellow program, which matches first-year law students with member law firms to help expand opportunities for these minority students.
Hoffer says his firm formed a Diversity and Inclusion committee and developed a firm-wide strategy, investing in education for the team while reviewing and adjusting current policies.
“In the coming year, we plan to invest time and resources in support of nonprofit inclusion and diversity partners and hope to recruit additional talent to our organization representative of the clients we serve and those we hope to serve in the future,” he said.
Attracting new talent
Attracting and retaining the best and brightest talent is always paramount. Growing a skilled workforce during a pandemic offers a challenge but one many firms met in 2020 and look to continue this year.
According to West, Goldberg Simpson was able to retain all their employees during the pandemic while some of the larger area firms suffered layoffs of both attorneys and support staff.
“We have recently hired several new associates and support staff in our domestic and insurance defense group and may hire more associates if our business continues to increase in 2021. We are able to attract attorneys because we have a diverse practice and encourage our associates to market and develop their own clients,” said West.
Gross says his firm also expanded in 2020 with the addition of eight new attorneys and is starting a class of new associates in January.
“We work collaboratively, across Dentons’ office locations, to develop and execute recruiting materials to provide an overview of the benefits of practicing law at one of the largest law firms in the country,” said Gross.
According to Ivan Schell, member with McBrayer, his firm has plans to expand in Louisville and add two new practice areas while strengthening their existing practice.
“Attorneys are pursued through personal contacts and inquiries in the legal community. This includes interviewing at law schools within and outside the state of Kentucky,” he said.
Hoffer’s firm added five new attorneys in 2020 and anticipates similar growth in the coming year.
“Our strategy is straightforward. We seek out talented individuals who help us fulfill our mission,” said Hoffer.