Since Covid-19 first entered the lexicon earlier this year, the widespread use of video conferencing technology has provided some humorous relief from the terrible ravages of the pandemic: not least, various lawyers caught unawares in assorted states of undress. A Florida judge told one lawyer, who appeared online during his court hearing, to: ‘Put a shirt on and get out of bed!’
But nothing quite compares to Juan Emilio Ameri, an Argentine lawmaker, who was suspended after a sexual act he undertook with woman was seen by multiple viewers during a virtual session of Argentina’s Congress. He later said that his internet connection had been poor and that he had been ‘caught in an intimate moment with his partner unaware.’
Although less sensational, there were many noteworthy postings during the UK’s second lockdown. Among them, two recent efforts stand out. The first was by a prominent partner at a City law firm – no names, to spare his blushes – which showed him standing by the Thames on a bright autumnal afternoon, with a message underneath in which he yearned to be back at his office desk. It followed another earlier LinkedIn selfie from the same lawyer, taken outside his firm’s main entrance, with a similarly plaintive one-liner about how much he missed the place.
The second piece attempted to look forward: a news item about the International Arbitration Centre (IAC) in London, which now features a new Covid-compliant disputes facility ‘to cater for a projected increase in disputes heard at the centre as hearings roll over from 2020 into 2021 and beyond.’ The 25,000-sq ft centre can accommodate up to 100 socially distanced people with up to 50 socially distanced attendees in its main hearing room.
Technology is at the heart of the new AIC offering, supplemented by ‘separate lifts, office facilities, rest rooms, and working space to operate in in line with the UK government’s Covid-19 guidelines.’ Presentation monitors are located at each main desk: a 34-inch sunken screen that can project evidence, transcripts and video conferencing.
But in unrelated ways, both of these pieces are retrospective, viewing the world through the prism of the pre-Covid era. The first expresses an understandable desire for things to “go back to normal” while the second assumes that they will automatically do exactly that, with the Covid-compliant facilities merely being an interim measure.
Once the suite of available vaccines has been successfully rolled out, a good degree of normality will, of course, return at some point next year. Recovering from the pandemic and managing the impact of Brexit will then become key objectives, as people yearn for a return to their “normal” lives. The only problem is that when they do, there will be a new normal – quite different from what went before.
Exactly how this brave new world might look is not yet fully apparent. It may, however, be characterised by a simple three-word phrase: no going back. Yes, the law firm partner will be happily back at his desk by next summer and AIC based arbitrations will also be back in full swing. But the new normal will permanently impact both of them.
At the law firm, the partner may well find that the working week for many of his colleagues will now be split 50-50: half time in the office and the other half at home. Working from home (WFH) is here to stay. Since Linklaters became the first City firm to announce a long-term WFH policy in September, allowing its employees to work remotely for up to 50% of their work time, the pattern has been set. Most other firms will have no choice but to follow their example.
For law firms, the longer-term outlook is already taking shape: smaller, high tech offices with a reduced footprint. Short term, those City firms which have hundreds of thousands of square feet at their disposal may find that the new normal will create hundreds of empty desks across the capacious floors of their expensive skyscrapers.
Equally, arbitration hearings designed for up to 100 people to sit in the same purpose-built room might never see that potential limit being physically realised. Instead, perhaps half that number might be present in a complex multi-jurisdictional, multi-party arbitration while the rest are remotely linked as witnesses, or participants.
As an indicator of the speed of technological change, one announcement during lockdown stands out: in November, the UK government confirmed that all new petrol and diesel cars and vans will be banned from sale from 2030 – a decade sooner than the original date suggested back in 2017 – as will new hybrid vehicles unless they cover a significant distance in zero-emission mode.
This policy is a catalyst to speed up the shift in human behaviour. By December 2020, there were more than 410,000 plug-in vehicles in the UK; by 2030, there will be more than 10m. To service them, there are currently 13,100 locations and just over 36,000 connectors: both figures are set to rise exponentially. Also in December, Britain’s first all-electric car charging forecourt opened in Braintree, Essex. It delivers 350kW of charging power, which adds 200 miles of driving range in 20 minutes for up to 36 cars at a time. Hundreds more electric forecourts are anticipated within five years and thousands more by 2030.
There is a lesson here for lawyers, particularly those engaged in any form of dispute resolution: the Covid-19 pandemic has also acted as a catalyst for the use of technology in court. This has been turbocharged by the use of virtual courts for the past nine months. Post-Covid, things will not simply go back to how they were. Instead, such virtual courts will continue to have a much greater role as part of the new normal for delivering efficient justice.
According to City UK’s latest legal services report, 77% of cases in English courts now have an international dimension. Just as they did during the pandemic, it is inevitable that foreign parties and witnesses based overseas will continue to use technology to give instructions, watch proceedings, and give evidence – rather than fly in to London to attend a court or arbitration hearing.
Likewise, this will affect lawyers on their feet in court. ‘They will need to have an ability to perform in front of a camera,’ says Clive Coleman, BBC’s Legal Correspondent. ‘I don’t mean a television camera, but the little one at the top of your computer screen. More and more law is going to be done remotely and any advocate would be foolish not to really think about how they can come across most effectively on screen. The way in which you project is different from court, the way in you use your natural props – your body, eyes and voice, all needs to be re-thought and tailored to ‘remote’ justice.’
At the dénouement of the 1950 Hollywood film, Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), turns to the camera, and says: ‘Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.’ A long-forgotten silent film star, whose career has been destroyed by the advent of new technology – talking pictures – she refuses to accept that her fame has evaporated. For lawyers who want to avoid being similarly left behind post-Covid, embracing new skills required by technology is paramount. Going back is not an option.
Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator. www.dominiccarman.com