2020 brought unprecedented and unexpected changes to the legal industry. Thirty-three percent of national firm leaders say the impact of COVID-19 will “fundamentally change the practice of law as we know it,” according to Managing Partner Forum.
For Louisiana attorneys, 2020 also brought a host of other challenges. Historic hurricanes ravaged areas of our state, and our main industries of tourism and hospitality have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Many firms have struggled to cover overhead, and recent graduates have faced a tough job market.
Despite these immense challenges, 2021 offers some hope. With vaccinations currently being distributed, the end of the pandemic may finally be in sight. But more than likely, it will be the second half of 2021 before enough people are vaccinated to resume normal life.
One thing is certain—adapting to the changes the legal industry faces in 2021 will help firms better navigate the upcoming year. Here are five trends that will shape legal practices in 2021.
We’re all suffering from pandemic fatigue. Most people are counting down the days until we can resume normal life. But the reality is that for most of us, life will not return to normal any time soon.
And while we’ve been operating with remote work and remote proceedings for a while now, many areas of using virtual options in legal practices still need to be ironed out. Remote work has prompted many law firms to reevaluate and analyze their strategies for operating safely, securely and efficiently. For example, how should e-discovery be handled moving forward? How can we ensure the security and privacy of client documents and materials? What legal management software do firms need to help manage cases remotely?
We can also expect legal challenges to the use of Zoom and video conferencing in legal proceedings, as more cases tried using these technologies result in appeals and verdicts, as well as legal challenges based on social distancing measures and mask requirements in courtrooms.
The legal industry has been slow to adopt remote work in the past, despite the fact that for the past 10 years, most industries have been moving in that direction. But after the switch to remote work brought about seemingly overnight in the wake of COVID-19, the increased flexibility that remote work offers staff will make it difficult for law firms to return to the status quo after the pandemic is over.
And that increased flexibility and the difficulties that many have faced this year juggling home and work lives have opened the door to even more discussions about work/life balance for attorneys and legal staff and how firms can help employees remain productive and happy, despite the challenges they face.
2020 has brought other unprecedented changes, though. Pre-COVID, remote mediation and arbitration had not been used. Typically, mediation involves getting clients and defendants together in a room where the mediator can talk with each side to try to move the group to resolution. At the end of the day, everyone agrees, and the case is settled.
The stakes with remote arbitration are even higher. Because it is essentially a trial, the decision the arbiter makes has the rule of law.
But holding these types of proceedings virtually fundamentally alters the nature of them. Particularly in remote mediation, the central premise of coming together to work out a resolution is made much more difficult in a remote setting. Technical difficulties, the inability to gauge others’ body language and Zoom fatigue all make reaching a resolution more difficult.
Now that a precedent has been set to use virtual proceedings in trials and court settings, it seems unlikely that this practice will stop after the pandemic is over. The convenience and efficiency that remote proceedings offer time- and resource-strapped courts will be difficult to give up. It seems very likely that holding hearings and trials over video platforms such as Zoom will increasingly become more prevalent and accepted. While these types of proceedings have legal drawbacks, attorneys practicing in 2021 and beyond will most likely need to adapt to this new virtual age of the law.
While most of the trends for 2021 are driven by the impact of COVID-19, one area of change resulted from the passage of the Civil Justice Reform Act of 2020, House Bill 57 (“HB57”). The tort reform bill reduces the jury threshold from $50,000 to $10,000 and requires the party seeking a jury trial to post a $5,000 cash bond before the trial. It also made changes to the Collateral Source Rule that limits the recovery of past medical expenses to the amount actually paid, plus forty percent for the cost of procurement.
Proponents of the bill argued that it would lower auto insurance rates while the plaintiffs’ bar opposed it on the basis that it would pressure plaintiffs into accepting unfair settlements. Many district court judges also opposed the bill because of concerns that it would result in a significant increase in low-value jury cases which would bog down their already lengthy dockets even further.
The bill takes effect Jan. 1, 2021. And the impact of these changes will be significant. It greatly reduces our ability to help injured people and to ensure they get a fair settlement.