When the pandemic hit, law firms went into a state of emergency as they looked to mitigate the worst of the impacts. Now, as the conditions begin to evolve and economies look to re-open, firms are carefully weighing up what the picture may look like in the longer term. Assisting them are legal networks, which are working hard to ensure their members can operate at their best.
Law ﬁrms look to legal networks for access to experts who understand the nuances of varied markets, and resources to respond quickly and wisely to new developments. But during the pandemic, law ﬁrm networks have become part of a critical part of member ﬁrms’ survival tool-chest — and their COVID-19 recovery strategy.
Law ﬁrm networks have been in the position of having witnessed the past few months from a truly global perspective – and there’s plenty of lessons that can be taken away from the experience, they say.
Daniel Himpson, head of business development and strategy for Asia-Paciﬁc at Lex Mundi, tells Asian Legal Business there is little doubt businesses have been seriously impacted by the global pandemic over the past few months. While different jurisdictions and countries have deployed various methods and approaches, for businesses, the impacts have been largely similar.
For clients of law firm network members, the biggest needs have been somewhat similar. “We’ve noticed a remarkable consistency in how the pandemic has affected clients across the globe, and how in turn their priori-ties have shifted together as events have unfolded,” says Himpson.
He thinks back to the earlier days of the pandemic noting: “As the shock of the pandemic ﬁrst hit, many businesses went into crisis response mode, focusing on keeping aﬂoat – essentially just looking to survive to ﬁght another day,” he says.
But while businesses had to over-night change their priorities, he considers the relative advantages operations now have.
“During this initial phase one of the most pressing tasks for multinationals was to carry out global contract risk reviews, often involving many thousands of documents across dozens of countries. If this had happened 10 or 15 years ago it would have been a monumental task for any business, with them struggling to manage many different law ﬁrms across many different jurisdictions,” Himpson notes.
And while today, it might be a some-what more manageable situation than it was in the past, it still wasn’t an easy task for law ﬁrms to react.
“Even so-called global ﬁrms rarely manage to fully cover any a multinational’s total geographical footprint, and they’re especially lacking in some of the smaller, more remote jurisdictions away from large business hubs,” he says.
There is little doubt that for law ﬁrms, transformation has been the name of the game for the past few years. With increased competition and consolidation, market players have had to respond strategically, and smartly in order to minimise costs, and maximise resources.
While these pressures have been in place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have only grown.
“Luckily both technology and alternate legal solutions have come a long way since then,” says Himpson of the market evolution over the past years, noting there are a number of tech tools that ﬁrms are now seeing the payoff for.
“AI contract review tools are really starting to come of age, and they played a big role in helping clients get to grips with the initial phases of the pandemic. Combining these tools with an organization such as ours, which provides clients with a single access point into well over 100 countries, in-house counsel were able to react much more easily and effectively,” Himpson adds.
Additional resources are no doubt in high demand, during these unprecedented times.
J. Michael Bernard, chairman of WSG notes that legal networks provide a strong resource for law ﬁrms and their professionals — particularly during a time when accessibility has been inhibited.
“Firms will continue to get great value from the network as long as lawyers are able to easily and effectively transition their network interactions as they have day-to-day client interactions,” Bernard says. “Networks that can adapt to the changes in the industry, adapt to the evolving requirements of the firms and offer real accessibility to each other in these unprecedented times will succeed and be needed during something as unprecedented as a global pandemic.”
“With digital connectivity more important than ever, WSG’s proprietary digital platform has been able to adapt quickly to changing needs for information and accessibility,” Bernard adds.
UNDER THE SHADOW
But as employees slowly return to physical locations, this can come with further complications.
Indeed, progress, and a more positive outlook, also may breed challenges for some businesses — particularly those who have resorted to emergency measures, and stayed in survival mode, without looking ahead.
“Many businesses went into what might best be described as ‘extended life support’. Propped up by various government subsidies, companies that might otherwise have folded continued to struggle along,” says Himpson.
“As government support measures slowly start to ease, and as businesses are coming to accept that we’ll be living under the shadow of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, it brings us onto what we now see as a realignment phase,” he adds, noting how businesses will have to adapt,” he notes. “In the short term, this presents clients with practical issues around dealing with large, remote workforces. How can they deal with data privacy issues? What about employee management and discipline? How do their responsibilities as an employer change?”
But there are other, external factors to consider, and these are areas that ﬁrms emerging post-pandemic should keep a watchful eye on.
“From a more strategic point of view, clients are keeping a close eye on how regulators are adapting antitrust and competition laws, seeking advice on the opportunities and threats this poses. And of course, deal-making is slowly making a comeback,” says Himpson, noting that M&A, in particular, has been fraught with additional challenges.
“M&A in the time of COVID-19 presents a unique set of challenges, with very limited opportunities for inter-national travel – especially to major markets such as China,” says Himpson.
LONGER TERM CULTURE SHIFT
Of course, navigating through these various challenges and hurdles has also led to changes in thinking and approaches for a number of ﬁrms — in addition to stark takeaway lessons.
“I would say there are two main themes we’ve seen throughout the pandemic: This ﬁrst is that companies must be able to act quickly and decisively if they are to survive. This seems to be universal across all industries, so legal teams must have access to fast, high-quality legal advice whenever and wher-ever they need it. Delays, while things get forwarded around, simply aren’t accept-able,” Himpson adds.
“The second theme is an increasing need for transparency and remote over-sight on the client side. We’re in touch with GCs around the world all the time, and this was always one of their chief requests, even before the pandemic hit. With the shift to remote working, the need has only increased.”
For Lex Mundi, such demands and needs around multijurisdictional work has led to the development of new client tools.
“Our clients are increasingly looking for ways to decrease complexity in multi-jurisdictional work. Our strategy over the past two years has been based around providing clients with a single access point into the entire network, and the pandemic actually coincided with the launch of our new service delivery plat-form called Equisphere,” says Himpson.
“Equisphere is a way for clients to have a single point of access into all of our ﬁrms around the world, with full visibility on progress and spend via a web tool. In many ways, it answers lots of the challenges posed by COVID-19, and it’s so simple clients can use it while working from their kitchen tables,” he adds.
With 2021 bearing down, the industry will have reﬁned the strategy as they move forward. Himpson says that given the way 2020 has panned out, he “wouldn’t dare make predictions about anything”.
But, despite the challenging situation business around the globe have found themselves in, many have emerged resilient, while others have undertaken complete transformations in order to emerge stronger.
While the picture ahead is uncertain — it’s largely optimistic. “I would say that the legal industry in general seems to have proved more resilient and performed far better than many were expecting six months ago, so I’m cautiously optimistic about what comes next,” Himpson says.
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