The Law is Back! (and pretty much the same as it ever was)

Remember, back in the spring of 2020, when we embraced all the radical changes to the way we practiced law?

All across the country, law firms were closing their offices, sending the staff to work from home, and figuring out how to practice using a laptop, a phone, and really strong wi-fi. No more 4-hour dockets, just to announce an agreed order. Instead, we were doing hearings (and trials!) by Zoom, sitting at hot desks (or in our front bedroom), and figuring out ways to use technology to speed up the legal process for clients.

But lawyers, as a group, aren’t always looking for ways to innovate and “speed up” the legal process. This is an industry where “they way things have always been done” sets a direct course for the ways things will be done.

And so, sure, those early pandemic puff pieces about all the law firm Zoom happy hours made for great fodder in the local business journal in July 2020, but this is July 2021, and it’s time for attorneys and staff to get back to the office. Lawyers are logging off of Zoom and dusting off those old suits. The two hour drive to Court to make a five minute announcement is back.

I love this quote because it’s so true: We are discarding so many of our advances from the past year–things that made perfect sense and saved so much time and legal fees for clients–only to go back “to the way law was practiced when people rode horses to court.”

Why? National legal writer David Lat writes about this in his column about the “Five-Day Office Week.” Lat cites several factors, not the least of which is the sunk cost of long term leases and other hard costs built into the typical law firm. If the firm is paying for all that space, why not make people use it? And, yes, the traditional way of doing things is one of those factors.

Because I live and practice law in Nashville, my frustration about reverting back to the old-timey ways is influenced by, frankly, how much of a mess downtown Nashville can be to conduct business in. E-filing in Davidson County Chancery, Circuit, and General Sessions Courts cuts down on 90% of my trips downtown, but, for that 10%, it literally doesn’t matter what time of day you go: Downtown Nashville is a 24-hour madhouse of construction, beer delivery trucks, parties, and congestion.

In the end, common sense and efficiency may not be the deciding factors. If the Judges, the Court Clerks, and the Administrative Office of the Courts want lawyers to practice law in person, lawyers will have no choice. If law firm managing partners want staff, associates, and partners to physically come downtown, that’s what they’ll do (unless it results in a talent exodus, as predicted by David Lat).

If you want an early clue on where this is heading, though, look at the law firm screenshots showing their recent Zoom meetings and happy hours. In those, the younger associates tend to be working remotely. But, notice the older lawyers’ pictures. They’re generally wearing ties and doing the Zoom calls from their law firm offices.

My take-away? The five day work week is already back. They just haven’t sent you the memo yet.

Author: David

I am a creditors rights and commercial litigation attorney in Nashville, Tennessee.

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