Globally, all professional industries were profoundly impacted by the pandemic in one way or another.
Yet, for most, the logistical implications of the lockdowns proved particularly challenging to overcome. After a lifetime of traditional, face-to-face communications provided the foundation upon which business was conducted - colossal shifts in process and procedures were necessary to remain afloat.
The legal system was no exception, and both courts and law firms have had to grapple with a rapid acceleration towards modernized ways of conducting their business of the day. Like many sectors, the legal industry had already begun moving towards modernized tech, but at a snail's pace. Everything changed when COVID-19 came to town.
The Rise Of Virtual Courts
With in-person attendance no longer an option and case backlogs already an issue, the court system had no choice but to modernize in response to the pandemic quickly.
By adopting modern, digital conferencing technologies, virtual court participation by both legal professionals and citizens became possible. These changes, brought about more rapidly by necessity due to COVID-19, have begun to alter the state of access to justice in America.
For example, according to a report from Thomson Reuter on the pandemic's impact on state and local courts, a significant 42% of respondents felt that virtual hearings had improved access to justice — this included 49% of municipal and county court participants, where civil case backlogs are a continual challenge.
On the other hand, in this same report, 23% of people felt that virtual court hearings decreased access to justice; however, this figure could primarily be due to disparities in access to the technology and internet connectivity necessary to enable attendance.
Lower-income households cannot always access the technology or reliable internet connections required to attend a court proceeding virtually. Moreover, according to a 2020 study by BroadbandNow, an estimated 42 million Americans currently have no access to high-speed broadband.
The internet is an increasingly vital component for allowing access to essential services, such as health, employment, educational resources, and virtual court proceedings. So, while the shift towards virtual court is necessary and largely modernizes the system and its accessibility for the better, it isn't without its difficulties.
Factoring In The Digitally Excluded
Nevertheless, for those Americans living in rural areas who do have access to adequate internet connections, virtually attending court or law firm appointments means that they can avoid driving for many hours, missing work, and potentially forfeiting earnings.
Last year, the US Senate passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, providing $42.5bn of broadband network funding for remote areas. This development will inevitably improve access to justice for more Americans.
What began as a temporary solution to a short-term problem is now shaping a new era in court proceedings and its operational approach. Video conferencing will allow for virtual participation and hybrid proceedings in which some attendees are physically present and some are not.
Digital Evidence Management
Another ongoing challenge for the legal system has been collecting, submitting, and safe storage of evidence. In recent years, the rapid increase of multimedia evidence has been overwhelming for many courts and legal businesses.
Body cameras and mobile footage, audio files, and hard drive contents are just examples of digital evidence sources that have forced the legal system to redesign how evidence is gathered and stored. The pandemic sent the need for an efficient response into overdrive.
The pandemic conditions forced courts and legal businesses to adopt technological tools that would vastly improve the efficiency and flexibility of a wide range of daily tasks. As a result, these tools are revolutionizing the legal process, with tasks relating to digital evidence, e-filing, and documentation platforms all working towards a fundamentally streamlined digital experience.
Camila Lopez, Co-Founder of People Clerk, a legal technology company helping Americans prepare and file small claims lawsuits from home, says, “The digital transformation of the sector dramatically improves the efficiency and accessibility of legal processes. In the relatively near future, we can expect to be able to file a small claims lawsuit, for example, and have the process unfold through to trial without having to go to a courthouse at any stage.”
E-Filing Is The New Norm
Just as video conferencing allows citizens and legal professionals to meet with each other and attend court virtually, e-filing is also significantly altering everyday legal processes.
Through e-filing, courts can receive vital digital records with low-to-no human interaction required. E-filing also eliminates the overwhelming storage requirements that have put such a strain on courts and legal businesses.
These technological advancements create more efficiency and accuracy for the legal system, promoting greater accessibility and boosting productivity.
Law Firm Workflow Transformations
The traditional workflow and accessibility of legal business are forever changed by advancements in technology and the rapid shift towards automation and digitization in response to the pandemic.
Document automation allows for greater efficiency across the board. With the online era of information at our fingertips, access to essential legal information is easier than ever before — information that significantly assists both the public and legal professionals.
Online communities are also now in abundance, giving the public access to free legal advice from their own homes. Social media use has also heightened amongst the legal profession since the pandemic, with many utilizing leading platforms such as LinkedIn for collaboration, networking, and debating. Many legal apps are also gaining traction, providing services such as creating wills and trusts.
The legal workflow will no longer survive with clear divisions between departments and other providers. Instead, seamless, integrated teams will perform collaboratively and provide high consumer value as they do.
A New Era For The Legal Industry
Thanks mainly to the pandemic conditions, the necessity for rapid digital transformation is creating a new era for the legal industry. Traditionalists may remain hopeful that these changes are temporary.
Still, the digital age is here to stay, and the court system and legal industry must embrace these ongoing technological advancements moving forwards — the benefits are already on display. The potential for further system improvements is virtually limitless.