The polling gurus over at FiveThirtyEight pointed out that the NBA work stoppage last night — a response to the horrifying Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin — came as white support for Black Lives Matter is waning after soaring to all time highs in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing. When protests broke out across the country over the killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it really felt like something had fundamentally changed in America’s response to police violence. The numbers suggest that weeks later… not so much.
That may be a jarring introduction to a post fundamentally about a legal technology conference, but it sets the stage for one of the recurring idiosyncrasies of this year’s ILTA>ON show. The program already exists in a twilight realm, adjusting its forward-looking perspective to account for the changes brought on by the global pandemic. But part of parsing out what the post-COVID world looks like is figuring out what changes are going to survive the lockdown. There’s a lot of “even after a vaccine…” talk around this virtual conference and it got me thinking: do we really believe that things won’t go back?
For example, people are saying that even after a vaccine, people will still be reticent to pile into conference rooms to look at documents and courts will still be pushing status conferences to remote check-ins. And maybe that’s true, but I’m incredulous. I’ve seen far too many “gamechanging” events creep back to normality to put a lot of faith in the staying power of some of these changes.
Will people keep wearing masks after we’ve conquered this specific virus? Some will. For a month or so. But humans always revert back to complacency if given enough time. As unthinkable as it may be to imagine yourself sitting next to a stranger right now — unless you’re taking the Colorado bar exam, of course — in seven months you won’t think anything of it.
And that’s going to be the biggest challenge in untangling a path forward for legal technology. Working from home, in some form, is going to be more normal if only because lawyers will demand it and firms are going to want to cut back on office space. But we’re not going to see the normalization of a full-time work from home model.
When I was talking to Litera CEO Avaneesh Marwaha, he pointed out that the timing of the pandemic has really shaped how we look at working from home:
Apprenticeships are so important in this industry. It’ll be interesting to see how that evolves going forward. We all have a core relationship with our current peers — how is that trust established? Some form of blending is almost inevitable to build that trust when you hire 200 new people… how’s that going to work?
I’d never considered this before! We all went online with colleagues we’d worked with for at least six months. We knew how they operated, we knew their strengths and weaknesses. But new hires are going to arrive soon and then what happens? It doesn’t seem like a fully virtual orientation is going to fly. We’d already heard firms say that training could be impossible virtually, but just building professional trust is a whole other dimension.
Agglomeration effects are real and eventually firms are going to have to regroup in the office to take advantage of that energy. But how do we draw the lines? When is it acceptable to stay home in that world? How do we make the call without treading upon childcare or medical issues that shouldn’t factor into workplace scheduling? In a lot of ways, these are more important questions than whether or not remote collaboration is “here to stay.” It will be here to stay… but it’s going to look a lot closer to where we were in January than where we are now.
And embracing that backslide is going to be as important to charting the future as understanding the change of the present.
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.