The Unexpected Impact of COVID-19 on Legal Practice in India
This is a writing sample from Scripted writer Camilla Barker-DeStefano
When COVID-19 tightened its grip on the world in early 2020, the impacts were felt in India just as they were felt elsewhere. Jobs were lost, businesses were closed, and the fundamentals of everyday living were altered beyond recognition. In the legal services industry, these impacts have undoubtedly made their mark. Courts closed their doors, lawyers were sent to work from home, and litigants were left in limbo. But outside of these more obvious impacts are several that are set to change fundamentally the very ways that lawyers go about their business in India. The Indian experience is a special one, for sure. Yet the lessons to be learned could apply to legal professionals anywhere.
The death of the diary
The very notion of swapping a physical diary for a digital one would send shivers down the spines of many a senior lawyer in India. For among legal professionals in India the diary is not simply a tool for recording appointments and reminders; it is almost akin to a designer fashion accessory. A worn and dog-eared diary thick with protruding notes and business cards is a symbol of status, importance, and indeed success.
To relinquish this object would, a year ago, have been near unthinkable. Yet that is exactly what is happening among senior and junior lawyers alike today.
Since lawyers have been forced to work from home, suddenly this cultural symbol has become redundant. No-one can see the diary if simply sits on a desk, and accordingly the value of the thing diminishes and the pulls of convenience and efficiency with digital tools grow ever stronger.
As more and more lawyers have adopted digital tools to facilitate their work, so too have they - perhaps even unconsciously - drifted towards digitisation across their entire workflow. If you have practice management software that automatically schedules meetings in a digital calendar on your smartphone, for example, you are much more likely to use that than its paper alternative.
If COVID-19 can topple the paper diary, it stands to reason that it can readily cause a fundamental shift in the ways lawyers create, process, and store their information. What this opens up is a world of possibility for budding legal tech entrepreneurs who can innovate to make this transition easier and, ultimately, more rewarding.
The psychological impact of name-calling
Before courts went digital, it would be rare for a junior lawyer to ever hear their name called by a judge in court. Senior lawyers would be addressed by name, a subtle form of laudation that ordinarily juniors would have to wait years to enjoy. But with hearings being broadcast digitally, usually via video conferencing software, junior lawyers have their names displayed on screens and are, accordingly, more often called upon by judges. The psychological impact of this should not be underestimated. Coming from a world of near invisibility in the eyes of senior legal and judicial personnel, junior lawyers now have an opportunity to get their name out there and start developing a professional reputation for themselves years, perhaps even decades, earlier than they ordinarily would. If nothing else, this boosts the morale of juniors, which not only increases their job satisfaction but also leads to better experiences and outcomes for clients.
The levelling of the playing field
In times of great catastrophe, like a global pandemic, one of two things usually happens: either the playing field is levelled, or it is shot out of balance entirely (the latter resulting in "the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer" and other extreme group divisions). In the legal industry, thankfully, the former appears to be happening.
Prior to COVID-19, lawyers from tier 2 and 3 cities could rarely appear in proceedings in the metros like Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Pune (where much of the high value litigation occurs) because the costs of traveling to such locations meant an unacceptable increase in fees that clients were simply unwilling to assume. The result was that metro lawyers were almost automatically selected over others regardless of their merit. Now, lawyers from smaller towns and cities can appear before the country's most important courts and institutions without prejudice.
And this is not just about opportunity for lawyers. This also impacts clients. Clients now have greater choice in who represents them, and an ability to better bargain on fees (more supply means less demand and, accordingly, lower fees).
COVID-19 is cultural for Indian legal practice
If we peel back the layers of what we are seeing in India today, the core is cultural change. The digitisation of practice, increased motivation of juniors, and enhanced merit-based mobility are deep developments that will continue to shape legal service delivery and consumption in India for years to come. This, in and of itself, presents a wealth of opportunities not just for India's lawyers, but for the legal tech companies that exist to serve them.
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