5 things that changed forever in 2020 – looking back on the Legal COO Network year

By Chris Bull, Chairman of the Legal COO Network and Edge International consultant


2020 was the year every firm with a Chief Operating Officer in place will have been glad they had them, and maybe when those without one realised just how many issues fall between stools or get mired in a functional silo slugfest when dramatic disruption hits.  

What we found running our 2nd year of the Legal COO Network, entirely virtual this time around, was just how central our members have been to their firm’s response to the pandemic and adjustment to a very different world.  This has been one hell of a year to be a COO in a law firm, leading the (front)line.

For me, it has been a pleasure and privilege to chair the lively and insightful sessions we’ve held since the summer and work with our sponsors at BigHand to pull the events together.  As we wrap up 2020, it feels like a good time to reflect on some of the biggest learnings from our debates.  It could easily have been 20 but I’ve pulled out five of the highlights for now.

1. Law firms proved in adversity just how far they have matured as effective organisations.

Yes, you did read that right.  Cynics of one persuasion like to cling to the perennial idea that law firms, especially those that are Partnerships, are antiquated throwbacks, incapable of rapid decision-making and action.  Our deep dive into how firms responded to COVID-19 earlier this year suggest that is just out-dated.

There is a strong sense, overall, of a ‘job well done’ by the legal sector in responding rapidly to the pandemic and lockdown measures.  Operations went well above and beyond in planning and directing that effort in very short order and COOs have been right at the heart of this; pulling together all the levers and managing the virtual, physical and financial aspects side-by-side.

Like anything to do with this once-in-a-lifetime challenge, preparedness was patchy and there have been obvious problems along the way – the dislocation and mental health fall-out particularly comes to mind from our discussions.  And the ability of law firms to work out what to do next will be another test of a different stripe.

But we learned that firms have built up organisational and operational skills, processes and capability over the last decade that make them much more resilient and adaptable than many had guessed.

2. The law firm operating model has changed permanently.

And the shape of the new version is coming into focus too. A common prognosis amongst our COOs is that the legal model is probably settling into a pattern where most staff work 2 or 3 days per week in the office – pretty much splitting their time between home and office workstations.  There was a striking 100% consensus amongst our attendees that some permanent change to how law firms operate is now unavoidable – and essential.  

That stacks up with US survey data from BigHand where 91% of firms believe the changes to working practices, including more remote working, are permanent. As one member noted at our August event, “rather than talking about transitioning out of lockdown we are now talking about transitioning to the future firm”. 

3. A dramatic overhaul of lawyer support and secretarial resourcing is already underway.

Lawyer support was being redesigned almost before we were out of the initial lockdown, our COO members have reported.  COOs cited multiple ways in which lawyers found themselves more self-sufficient than expected working remotely.  Cultural sensitivities that had held back the full extent of improvements to the support model have ‘disappeared overnight’.  Many firms simultaneously reprioritised projects and brought forward their roll-out of software that supports the efficient digital handling of support requests, and visibility of related data, enabling more centralisation, permanent home working and outsourcing.

4. Redesigning, reconfiguring and refitting offices is on every firm’s agenda now.

A majority of our COOs are focused on adapting their real estate portfolio to a shifting purpose; the collaborative hub (something we agreed to try to define and understand more at one of our 2021 sessions).  Firms will be dealing with the residual impact of social distancing for a while to come; adjusting the approach to density, hot-desking, providing contingency and flexibility.  As one COO who is looking at redesigning a recently opened office described it, the collaborative and interactive space is likely to become the focus of the legal office and the ‘conventional’ desks and single-person offices become secondary and peripheral. 

5. The pandemic pressed fast forward on law firm digitisation.

Another universal consensus amongst COO members was that the events of 2020 had accelerated the creeping automation and digitisation in the legal world by 2-3 years.  Many discussions during the year returned to the sudden crumbling of resistance and long-standing objections to technology-enabled change in the fact of the realities of remote working.  Necessity is the mother of invention and Partners and lawyers saw the necessity of eliminating ties of paper and manual activity wherever possible and embracing technologies that facilitated agile working – from Zoom and MS Teams to BigHand Workflow. 

As insightful and valuable as the speakers and discussions at this year’s Legal COO Network have been, we look forward to an even more dynamic and illuminating 2021 series.  In the next year the new operating model has to be rapidly defined and embedded and we expect the transition to a very new normal to be as challenging as the initial pandemic response was. 

Amongst the challenges Legal COOs face now – and which we will be examining in 2021 are:

The Legal COO Network brings together law firm Chief Operating Officers (COOs) across a spectrum of firms, ranging from some of the largest global players to regional outfits and new model legal companies.  Our members are keen to know a bit more about what their peers are doing and to share ideas and experiences in a secure, confidential and friendly environment.  In 2020 attendees joined us from the UK, North America and Asia.  The Legal COO Network is sponsored and supported by BigHand and chaired by Chris Bull, Edge International consultant (and former COO).  

Do join us for our upcoming #LegalCOONetwork Virtual session on 21st January 2020 where we'll be taking a look at the ‘P-word’ – Productivity, in the wake of the dramatic changes we saw in 2020. 

Register here