Pandemic challenges have transformed the legal landscape. But there’s no going back.
The phrase “a spanner in the works” is used in Great Britain to describe some sort of problem thrown into the clockwork machinery of life. Your previously precisely ordered schedule grinds to a halt, and you have to readjust.
For the legal profession, the COVID-19 pandemic was a gigantic spanner in the works.
As LAW360’s Jack Karp put it, summing up the outlook for 2022: “Remote court proceedings and depositions are here to stay, as is the ongoing backlog in trials, litigators say. Meanwhile, disputes arising from employees’ return to the office, business interruption issues and bankruptcies will keep litigators busy.”
That’s just the beginning of ongoing challenges facing the profession. Here are four big obstacles you’re likely to face in the rest of 2022 — and likely beyond.
Crawling cases and pain for prisons
Let’s begin with the people awaiting trial and accused of crimes. Their day in court has been delayed, and many languish inside jails.
You can quote statistics, or you can look at painful real-world examples. In Sedgwick County, Kansas, home of Wichita, courts are choked with cases and the jail is packed with prisoners, according to a report from KWCH-TV.
“With COVID, some of these cases have been very difficult to get the system operating a certain way,” defense attorney Chris O’Hara told the station. “And then when you’ve got a backlog with the system, obviously some of these cases may take a little bit longer to get through.”
O’Hara said that ends up frustrating both those accused and those prosecuting them. “There can be frustration from the defense’s perspective,” he said. “I think there’s also probably frustration from the state’s perspective.”
A frayed legal support structure
Why are court dates being delayed? Sure, COVID-19 restrictions have played a factor. But another piece of the puzzle is an exodus of legal staffers, meaning that courts and law firms have been left hanging.
A piece in JDSupra outlines the extent of the problem: “The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that from August 2021 to December 2021, more than 700,000 people in the professional and business services category — which includes lawyers and other legal professionals — had quit their jobs each month.”
While the piece suggests that a boost in law school admissions will ultimately help the situation, firms will need to patch together solutions in the short term.
Technology embraced, but not equally
While we might be focusing on the challenges here, The Pew Charitable Trusts point out that the legal system transformed itself with stunning speed as the pandemic hit. Online hearings started up across the country, and the new approach to access made it easier for some folks to attend hearings.
Overall, the country’s court system didn’t let this particular crisis go to waste.
But Pew also points out that while much news media coverage during the pandemic focused on criminal courts, where there is a right to representation. The effect in civil courts, where there is no such right, has been more nuanced.
“The accelerated adoption of technology disproportionately benefited people and businesses with legal representation—and in some instances, made the civil legal system more difficult to navigate for those without,” the report reads.
Adapting anew and again
You may feel like you’ve learned an entirely new landscape more than once since the pandemic began. Isn’t it time to head back to normal? Think again. The genie is out of the bottle on this one, and litigation won’t be the same again soon. If ever.
“Preparation has always been key to a litigator’s success,” said Michele Johnson, global chair of the litigation and trial department at Latham & Watkins LLP, in Karp’s roundup, “but litigating in 2022 will require us to be particularly nimble and adaptable.”
The temptation is to see these changes and challenges as problems at worst and time-gobbling annoyances at best. But Thompson Reuters took a different view in its report on state and local courts, suggesting last year that the turmoil could ultimately benefit the public.
“Without equal and fair access to our courts, individuals risk the loss of their liberty, property, and much more,” wrote Gina Jurva. She added: “The technology changes we have seen accelerating over the past 18 months are a positive step forward for court professionals and our nation’s citizens.”
Need to adapt quickly? If you’re looking for a trial support partner with an array of services, we can help. Array can step up as your litigation support partner, offering assistance in eDiscovery, contract staffing and recruiting, court reporting areas. Don’t resign yourself to turmoil when an answer waits right around the corner.