Biologist, historian and futurist H G Wells, author of the sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds – a tale of alien invasion and annihilation by pathogen – once famously wrote “Adapt or perish, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” It could be very good advice in today’s troubled times.
As we all struggle to adapt to our new, post-COVID-19 environment, it will be interesting to see how businesses adapt and evolve to not only survive, but hopefully thrive, in this brave new world. For some, perhaps, the crisis will sadly deliver a death blow. But the very nature of the human beast suggests many others will take advantage of invaluable opportunities it will create.
Certainly, in the short term at least, business models will need to change. The evidence is there already; restaurants moving to exclusively ‘take-away’ services is a primary example. And, as restrictions inevitability ease in the mid to long term, many if not all industries, will need to rethink the way they deliver their product.
The legal industry is no different. In the short term, many lawyers have already seen a significant decrease in the demand for some of their services, but a corresponding increase in the demand for others. With most people spending much of their time isolated at home, and the courts taking the unprecedented step of adjourning criminal prosecutions indefinitely, for many lawyers the practice of criminal law has all but ground to a halt, yet regrettably applications for domestic violence protection orders have reportedly surged. Migration law practice looks to be drying up rapidly, while in the commercial sphere, although the overall appetite for non-essential court skirmishes has waned in the face of tightening purse strings, there’s been a rush of landlords, tenants and business-folk wanting advice and corresponding action on leasing and other contractual disputes, as they grapple to sort out exactly what their contractual rights and obligations will be in the face of the ongoing pandemic.
Since few could have ever foreseen the situation we’re currently in, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many commercial agreements do not specifically address a wide range of problems that are being thrown up, leaving thorny questions to be answered regarding the enforceability of a host of business relationships. Many are hoping and expecting that the State Governments will eventually intervene with some protection measures in respect of residential and commercial tenancies, without which we would inevitably see a surge in litigation.
And of course, most uncertain of all in such times is our own physical health, so Wills and Estates have very recently proved an area of sharp growth for lawyers, with many clients wisely opting to get their affairs in order in a timely fashion.
So far, the once-considered dowdy and unyielding profession of law has proven surprisingly dynamic in adapting the way its services are delivered. In the matter of not much more than a fortnight, what were once everyday, face-to-face meetings with clients, courts and colleagues have become mostly a thing of the past (Well, for the time being at least). Not only have justice administrators largely turned the courts into a “no go zone,” with a stern preference expressed for appearances only by audio or video link up, most law firms themselves have already moved the bulk of their staff to a WFH (“working from home,” for the uninitiated) environment. That’s no mean feat, considering the need for ongoing instant connectivity to thousands of documents, and continued seamless internal interaction within legal teams, affecting not only efficiency but culture.
It would be cavalier to think the industry doesn’t face significant challenges, but despite the unprecedented upheaval and dislocation, it’s generally business as usual for most firms.
Change is invariably hard, but there will hopefully be positives in the long run. While still struggling with inevitable teething problems associated with working remotely, lawyers have already started to see some of the benefits of allowing their staff a more flexible working environment. To adapt our product to a more isolated and cost effective market, we’ve begun offering everything from wills, directives and powers of attorney, to supply agreements, confidentiality deeds, work license applications, online. Methods which once seemed too crass and commercial to countenance for such an honourable profession, are suddenly getting a look in…and perhaps they’re the way of the future.
As in all aspects of life, amidst all the doom and gloom, eventually a slither of light will shine through. Those businesses that spot it early – and adapt, not perish – may find themselves far better off in the long run.
Brendan Nyst, Director, Dispute Resolution and Litigation