Almost overnight, a global pandemic prompted courts across Canada to shutter and law firms to empty, forcing many in the legal profession to change the way they practise law. As a result, many lawyers say they probably won’t return to “business as usual” anytime soon.

“We’re not going backwards at this point,” says Ian Hull, a wills, trusts and estates litigator and co-founder of Hull & Hull LLP in Toronto. “I’m not sure virtual signing of wills will last, but looking at this as a litigator and solicitor’s work practice, I can’t see myself telling people to come downtown and have a meeting when I have accomplished what I have now on Zoom — it is highly unlikely.”

Speaking as part of a broad-ranging discussion that included heightened client expectations and dealing with the challenges presented by COVID-19, Hull and five other lawyers were part of a webinar hosted by UpWord Communications and Buzzy Branding on June 24. The lawyers, from a range of practice areas, said the move to remote work, while initially challenging, has been “liberating” and often more efficient, even if it has further blurred the lines between work and personal life.

Focus on service, efficiency, relationships

Hull says when COVID-19 hit, Hull & Hull’s practice, “went to a dead stop” — something the firm had never encountered in more than 50 years.

“Things were fine, but it certainly wasn’t rosy those first few weeks. I had never seen anything like it. We were, however, able to take a deep breath, and focus on other things,” he said. “A few of us in the firm helped the government with some transitional legislation to allow for wills to be signed a little differently and jump into topics that were important from a professional standpoint. For 30 years, I’ve been banging on the government’s door, and all of a sudden, they were telling us how much they needed us.”

Hull admits he can see that after months of Zoom meetings, client retention may become a more significant challenge.

“One thing the profession has to get used to is that clients are not going to be as sticky as before,” Hull said. “You haven’t got the chance to create that personal, engaged moment. That’s something the younger lawyers are better at — I’m already noticing that. So, it will be about focusing on what we can do to make sure we keep good service, efficiencies and relationships with clients.”

Client expectations in a COVID world

Norm Keith, a management-side labour and employment lawyer with Fasken in Toronto, whose practice focuses on occupational, health and safety workers’ compensation and government investigations, says the shift to remote work has resulted in a need to be almost always “on.” His days with construction clients start earlier and end later.

“In a sense, whether individual practitioners or a partner in a law firm of more than 700 lawyers, as I am, we all became sole practitioners overnight, working remotely,” he said. “You also had to adjust to using technology more than ever before.”

Leanne Townsend, a family law lawyer and partner at Brauti Thorning LLP in Toronto, said that as family courts have transitioned to teleconferencing and video calls, she thinks some of that will remain after COVID restrictions are lifted.

“It offers the possibility of a different way of life as a lawyer and some increased flexibility, which I look forward to,” she says.

New opportunities to connect

Townsend said her solid footing in social media gave her a distinct advantage in business development and answering client questions on developing issues around child custody during the pandemic.

“Before COVID, I was always active on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn and have been able to grow a fairly large audience there. When COVID hit, I started doing weekly Instagram live events with another lawyer. We picked different topics related to COVID, and it’s resulted in a new amount of business,” she said.

Hull said his firm also did a push on social media, putting out a checklist for lawyers to do a holographic will.

“It was a simple tool we hadn’t even thought of doing before,” he said. “We also enhanced our presence and launched a software tool and offered it for free to help with wills. We refocused on giving out as much as we could because you get a tsunami back. It was tangible stuff people could use immediately. It was a whole refocusing of our social media program.”

Townsend, who has two teenagers and two dogs at home, said she has been working partially at home and sometimes at her office where there are fewer distractions.

“It has affected my focus and productivity at times. I like having the mix, but one of the positives I see coming out of COVID is that it has shown we can do many things remotely,” she says.

Keith says clients have also become more demanding on rates, even though law firm fixed costs have not changed.

“There are many challenges in the client space,” said Keith. “We have to be sensitive to client needs and cost limitations as they demand legal services. But we also have to be mindful of our responsibility as partners and employees and colleagues to make sure the law firm is fairly treated.”

Challenges and opportunities in remote work

Monique Sassi, a restructuring and insolvency lawyer and partner at Cassels, said she is busier as the economic fallout of the pandemic affects various industries.

“Because our practice is a hybrid and we are in court a lot of the time, it was initially stunted. Now the courts are up and running on Zoom, and that’s a huge change. Most of our hearings are usually on the Commercial List, and those are happening on Zoom. The judges like Zoom and will probably continue that way. That was a big change,” she said.

Sassi admits transitioning an entire firm of lawyers to work from home was “a big endeavour” but that it’s “pretty seamless now” and she thinks it will change how firms practice in the future, but has concerns about more junior lawyers.

“I am very aware of the disconnect they may feel. I think as partners we speak to each other often, but for younger associates, and especially students, we need to make an effort to include them in the process,” she says.

The upside and downside of virtual meetings

Keith says while Zoom hearings are working right now, he feels they aren’t as effective as those held in-person.

“I did a Zoom Labour Board hearing last week, and it’s novel, and a bit fun, but I think most advocates feel it’s still not quite as effective. I think most experienced judges are coping and accept it as an acceptable means of dealing with most things. Ultimately, the assessment of demeanour of witnesses, of testing of evidence of credibility, is still always going to be best done in person,” he said.

Sassi thinks that the electronic signing of documents won’t go away.

“We were always teetering on the edge of that, and I think it’s here to stay. I think paper printing of 600-page motion records –– those days are gone,” Sassi said.

While there are more demands on her time, the remote work opportunity provided other ways to manage her day.

“You have to be available later and be more accessible, but I’m finding you have more flexibility during the day to exercise or do other things you wouldn’t do in a practice environment,” Sassi said. “I look forward to the day of going back to the firm — I have two small kids at home and dreaming of being in a quiet office where uninterrupted work can happen, but I don’t know if we are ever going to go back to the way it used to be.”

Making legal services more accessible

Dipo Ziwa, a sports and entertainment lawyer and founder of Aditus Law Group in Regina, runs a predominantly digital law firm, providing service on a fixed-fee basis. He meets with clients on Zoom calls or Google Meets and said witnessing the broader legal profession leap to embrace technology has been interesting to watch.

“As someone who would like to see legal services delivered more accessibly, the widespread usage has been a welcome feature, quite frankly,” he said.

He says the re-think going on in the legal profession is essential and may cause firms to consider adopting current efficiencies in their practice models over the long term.

“I hope that will lead to a lessening of cost, and to more accessible service for clients. Whether that’s completely abandoning or diminishing the need for brick and mortar spaces or buying into what’s available in the technological market as it pertains to legal technology,” he said, adding it could lead to a boost in the standard of living for those in the profession.

Thijiba Sinnathamby is a wills and estates/family lawyer, and principal lawyer at TSJ Law and the founder of Her Legal Network in Toronto. She said even before the pandemic hit, most of her practice was managed remotely. Many of her clients prefer online meetings, and she experienced a seamless transition.

“For the most part, this is what I was waiting for,” she said. “I also like that there has been a lot of practice support happening in the profession. I’ve used a lot of the resources Ian’s firm put out, for example. That kind of information sharing has been such a great thing to see, and I hope it continues.”

Fighting racial injustice in the legal profession

The roundtable participants also discussed racial inequality in the legal profession and what they have committed to doing to address the issue.

“I try to go the extra mile to make services accessible and affordable, and that’s a decision I have made from the get-go,” said Sinnathamby. “I have been enjoying the conversations happening around racial inequality in the profession. I think there needs to be quite a bit of work done, and I’m happy to see lawyers taking the time to talk through what’s going on in their own firms and taking concrete steps to address inequalities at their firm, or even providing more affordable services.”

Hull said the legal profession must address racial inequality, especially when it comes to access to services.

“We have such tremendous obligations as lawyers on so many levels. Racial inequality is one of those primary considerations that all good lawyers should have top of mind,” said Hull. “We need to continue to stay focused on delivering our services with a mind and a view to opening it up to all members of society.”

Ziwa noted that the discussion around racial inequality is having a “watershed moment” right now.

“I think as a profession we have to be asking ourselves where we stand on certain issues continually. In the fight against racial inequality, the legal profession has, regardless of the practice area, the deepest obligation to make sure we’re on the right side of things and that we stand for justice. That’s why I got into the profession at a core level and it is always front of mind for me, and I hope it’s front of mind for all practitioners.”

For its part, Cassels has committed to providing a certain number of hours of pro-bono services to Black-owned businesses and to financial supports, Sassi noted.

Townsend said she has also offered to do pro-bono work for members of the Black community who require family law services.

To view the webinar in its entirety, click here.