COVID-19 forces changes on majority of law practices: Survey

September 16, 2020 | By Julius Melnitzer

A new survey of 400 legal professionals across Canada reveals that 67 per cent of those surveyed expect to see, or are currently experiencing, practice-related changes due to COVID-19.

“The report tells us that COVID-19 will see core businesses decline, with many lawyers looking to expand into new practice areas to mitigate revenue loss,” said Eric Wright, CEO of LexisNexis Canada (owners of The Lawyer’s Daily), which conducted the survey in June and July.

Eric Wright, LexisNexis Canada

This was especially true of the 32 per cent of respondents who specialized in a single area of practice. The most prominent specialty was family law (17 per cent). Civil litigation, real estate and criminal law also stood out.

It was these firms that have been hardest hit. Many have been forced from their traditional comfort zones.

“The pandemic caused a significant upheaval in family law and lawyers have had to be very, very nimble,” said Frances Wood of Brampton-based Wood Gold LLP, a family law boutique, and chair of the Ontario Bar Association’s (OBA) family law section. “Fortunately, many have been more open than ever to different ways of resolving clients’ issues, particularly by way of ADR (alternative dispute resolution), as well as transitioning to new ways of practice, like using Zoom.”

Justin Nasseri of Goddard Nasseri LLP in Toronto, which bills itself as a “one-stop litigation shop,” believes that diversity is important even for specialized practices.

“COVID hasn’t really hurt our business, but that’s because we are generalists within the civil litigation sphere,” he said. “Because we do just about everything, including criminal, civil and regulatory, we’ve built a base that’s broad enough to sustain us through this.”

Jana Schilder, a marketing and public relations specialist with The Legal A Team in Toronto, agrees.

“One of our clients is a criminal law firm that also does civil litigation,” she said. “If they didn’t have that other practice area, they’d be done.”

Jana Schilder, The Legal A Team

But for those who were not as well situated, and didn’t or couldn’t adapt, the picture’s been bleak.

“Family lawyers are hurting, and criminal law is completely dead,” said Schilder. “One of my clients, an eight-lawyer family practice of 17 years standing, just folded.”

Still, the survey found that nearly one-third (32 per cent of all respondents) were uncertain how they will adapt to cope with the changes.

About 20 per cent anticipated expanding their practice into new areas, with some 15 per cent expecting a shift to areas of practice where the firm was already conducting some business.

“We’ve heard of various lawyers doing something other than their family law specialty, like wills and estates or real estate, just to keep the door open,” Wood said. “That’s particularly true in smaller jurisdictions.”

Lawyers making these types of changes, or expecting to make them, foresaw doing so in a number of ways. About 33 per cent thought they would procure new legal research tools or texts; almost 25 per cent intended to attend CLE courses; just over 20 per cent hoped to learn on the job; approximately 12 per cent wanted to locate a mentor; and about seven per cent anticipated hiring new staff.

Robins Appleby LLP, a Toronto firm, responded to the pandemic by creating a multidisciplinary “real estate workout and enforcement team” to help lenders, developers, contractors, landlords and tenants suffering from the effects of COVID-19.

“The pandemic has created a crying need everywhere for a new kind of legal assistance,” Schilder said. “And there’s a huge opportunity for lawyers to reinvent themselves in that space.”

Looking at the post-COVID world, the greatest proportion of respondents (35) believed business would stabilize in 12 months, with 20 per cent looking at an 18-month horizon.

And the smaller the firm, the longer the recovery period anticipated. About 43 per cent of solo practitioners expected things would remain rocky for 18 months or more. Firms of two to five lawyers (37), six to 10 lawyers (28) and 11 to 49 lawyers (27) followed.

Schilder said her experience bears out these statistics.

“The bigger employment law firms, for example, are quite busy, while the smaller ones are struggling,” she said.

Wood said that’s equally true in family law.

“The larger firms have a greater ability to absorb the financial impact of installing Zoom technology and getting licences for PDF programs and various services that provide document delivery,” she said.

But Justin Tetreault of Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP in Toronto, a labour and employment law boutique, and chair of the OBA’s labour and employment law section, has a different viewpoint.

Justin Tetreault, Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP

“The impact is certainly different depending on the size of the firm, but I wouldn’t say that one or more is less affected than the other,” he said.

Larger labour and employment firms, Tetreault explained, were more likely to have systems in place that allowed for working remotely, but smaller firms may not have found these measures difficult to implement.

“At our firm, we didn’t have these systems, but bringing them onboard was much more efficient and seamless than anticipated,” he said.

As it turns out, criminal lawyers were the least optimistic about the prospects for stabilization. Some 50 per cent believed things wouldn’t return to normal for 18 months or more. Family lawyers were almost as pessimistic (44 per cent). Fewer personal injury (38), real estate (33) and civil litigation practitioners (26) saw a horizon of 18 months or more.

Overall, 89 per cent of respondents believed that the pandemic would lead to long-term changes. Civil litigation (68) was deemed the most likely prospect, followed by family law (54) and employment law (53).

LexisNexis’ Wright believes that’s all good.

“What these numbers highlight is that the industry is self-aware that it needs to change and evolve,” he said.

Indeed, that silver lining may turn out to be COVID-19’s greatest, albeit serendipitous, gift to the profession.

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