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Practice 360° Offers Management Strategies for the Pandemic and Beyond

September 22, 2020

By Jeremy Conrad and John Murph

The D.C. Bar’s annual Practice 360° conference on September 18 offered a wide array of sessions to help attendees improve the success and profitability of their legal practices. Sponsored by the Bar’s Practice Management Advisory Service, the daylong event placed special emphasis on issues that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront, including the effective administration of a virtual practice, the use of technology and online marketing, cybersecurity issues, and more.

Innovating Legal Practice

Jack Newton, CEO and cofounder of the legal technology company Clio, looked at data relating to the delivery of legal services in the session “The Client-Centered Law Firm: How to Succeed in an Experience-Driven World.” Drawing from examples in other industries, Newton discussed how various businesses have changed their products and methods of delivery to beat out competitors.

Newton emphasized that a client-centered perspective can unlock previously unrecognized opportunities. He provided examples of how attorneys employing innovative business models have succeeded during the pandemic by providing for the digital delivery of services, the automation of aspects of representation, the use of text and chat bots for certain kinds of client contacts, legal subscription services, flat-fee arrangements, and unbundled representation models.

During the session “Innovating in the New Normal,” Newton was joined by Ed Walters, CEO of Fastcase, for a discussion of COVID-19’s impacts on the legal industry. Moderated by D.C. Bar Chief Programs Officer Darrin Sobin, the session covered how technology that attorneys have adapted out of necessity could be used to uncover new opportunities for themselves and their clients.

Newton presented data showing a drop-off in new matters and billing volume immediately following the onset of the crisis, though he went on to show that there has been significant recovery in both areas. He argued that there is a general consumer willingness and even preference for the use of remote technologies. Expanded use of technology would lead to greater customer satisfaction and improved access to justice, he said.

Walters generally agreed with Newton’s observations, musing that many have misquoted Charles Darwin as having said that natural selection involved the survival of the fittest. “What Charles Darwin said was that the survivors were the ones that were most adaptable,” Walters noted, adding that the law firms that adapt most effectively during this time will be the ones that thrive beyond the pandemic.

The New Role of AI

Andrew Arruda, cofounder and CEO of ROSS Intelligence, demonstrated an app that uses AI to streamline legal research.

Andrew Arruda, cofounder and CEO of ROSS Intelligence, assured attendees that artificial intelligence (AI) has very little to do with robots taking over their professional and personal lives. In his presentation, “AI, Legal, and the Changing Business of Law,” Arruda explained that the origins of AI technology involved machine learning, visual recognition, speech recognition, and natural language processing.

Arruda recalled his previous career working at a law firm and how he was inundated with emails, physical mail, faxes, and other information. “The really great thing about law from an AI perspective is the fact that since we’ve been writing so much for so long — even keeping track of our edits and back and forth with closing counsel — all of that information [from our past workflows] can become machine-training learning buildup,” he explained.

He then demonstrated the ROSS Intelligence app, which aids legal professionals in research. “What attracted us in getting into legal research is that case law is extremely dense and expansive . . . There are thousands of new cases released each day. Many of these can be quite long,” Arruda said. “So, you want to zero in on [the best] pathway for researching material.”

Arruda said that, in most cases, there is a lack of uniform heading and citation standards, obtuse language, dense prose, and inconsistent ordering of text in legal documents. Using traditional search engines meant attorneys would end up getting back thousands of results. ROSS Intelligence, however, uses natural language processing, which enables the system to better identify the correct text passage for legal research. “Unlike previous research tools, which put the onus on the users, we do that heavy lifting,” he said.

AI is not perfect, Arruda added. Some of the problematic areas include using facial recognition during jury selection, which could lead to privacy issues surrounding social media usage, and the idea of a robo-judge, which might reflect implicit bias based on AI learning patterns.

Regarding the future of AI, Arruda said, “Artificial intelligence will not stay cutting-edge. It’s really becoming table stakes in nearly every industry. In law, artificial intelligence is arriving, pretty much, with perfect timing.”   

Avoiding Ethical Pitfalls

The conference offered several sessions with CLE credit, including “Red Flags, Guardrails and Hard Stops: Navigating Lawyer Ethics With Difficult Clients.” Presenters included Dan Schumack of Schumack Law Firm PLLC and Hope Todd and Erika Stillabower from the D.C. Bar Legal Ethics Program, who explored the tensions between the duties normally owed a client and those owed to the court, to third parties, and to the administration of justice generally.

Todd presented a series of hypotheticals involving ethical conundrums that the panelists dissected to illustrate how to avoid potential ethical lapses. She provided resources to help identify which clients and types of situations might pose ethical problems.

Schumack advised attorneys to be cautious, pointing out that many of the disciplinary rules impose penalties for acts that do not require a knowing violation. Attorneys may, in many instances, be held liable for reckless or negligent acts, he said.

Preventing Burnout in the Legal Field

Niki Irish from the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program discussed well-being and the signs of burnout.

Lawyers are no strangers to burnout. In fact, as Niki Irish pointed out in her presentation, “Running on Empty: Preventing Burnout in the Legal Profession,” lawyers are particularly vulnerable because they tend to be Type A personalities who function under high stress for long periods of time. Plus, they struggle with a push-through mentality when exhausted, an unwillingness to ask for help, and a strong sense of duty.

Irish, senior counselor with the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program, noted that it’s hard not to experience burnout during the pandemic. In addition to the incessant barrage of news related to COVID-19, including the moveable target dates of vaccine availability, this year is filled with other stressors such as flaring racial tension, particularly in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, wildfires in the West, hurricane season, the upcoming U.S. presidential election, and, for some, juggling remote schooling for children.

She advised attendees to not ignore the early signs of burnout. The presentation cited persistent exhaustion, negative feelings toward one’s career, and reduced productivity as the three primary symptoms. The various causes of work-related burnout include lack of autonomy, values conflicts, unclear goals or expectations, a dysfunctional environment, an excessive workload, lack of support, lack of recognition, and monotonous or low-stimulation work.

Irish guided attendees on how to foster a greater sense of control over their time, advising them to set daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly personal goals. In terms of healthy ways to manage stress, Irish recommended exercise, concentrated breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, positive social interaction, laughter, affection, crying, and creative self-expression.

“If you think you’re in the wrong role or career, that’s OK,” Irish said. “That happens to a lot of people. Develop a career strategy that helps you plan a career that’s better for you in the long run. Sometimes just acknowledging the problem then setting up goals [helps]. Maybe [the change] is not until the next year or even three. But knowing that there’s a difference that might happen in the future can really help.”

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