Closed offices. Virtual courts. E-recording and e-filing. Video conferences for everything from estate planning to real estate closings. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly altered how law is practiced. As more Americans are vaccinated and we slowly emerge from pandemic restrictions, will we revert to in-person meetings and on-site court hearings? Or will “tele-legal” remain an essential feature of daily law practice?

For lawyers and clients alike, tech-enabled legal services have significant advantages that will continue to save time and improve access for all involved. For the courts, however, the use of remote proceedings has raised questions of fairness.

Clients Prefer Tech-Enabled Legal Services

For those who have learned to become more technologically adept during the pandemic, expectations for how lawyers conduct business have shifted. According to the New York State Bar Association’s summary of findings from Clio’s recent Legal Trends Report, 69 percent of clients prefer to share documents electronically with their lawyers, and 56 percent prefer video conferencing to phone calls. About two-thirds of clients prefer electronic payment.

The ease and convenience of video conferencing—more flexible scheduling, no commuting, no parking issues—have proven the advantages of remote meetings. For busy working parents, parties with complex schedules, individuals with disabilities, and many others, remote meetings increase access and save precious time. While law firms may initially shift back to more in-person meetings for client consultations, for transactions such as real estate closings, and for proceedings such as depositions and mediations, it’s likely that remote options will stay in the mix to accommodate clients.

For Lawyers and Clients Alike, Electronic Document Sharing Is a Plus

Prior to the pandemic, e-recording of real estate documents and e-filing of court documents were available in many situation, but not widely preferred by lawyers over in-person filing. As courts and registries of deeds restricted access during the pandemic, however, electronic options became essential. The ease and efficiency of transmitting documents electronically, instead of making a trip to the registry of deeds or courthouse, saves everyone valuable time.

Electronic document sharing takes place over video conference calls, as well, with lawyers and clients able to review documents via screen-sharing. Real estate closings that once required all parties to be physically present to sign and exchange documents have gone virtual. The pandemic has necessitated new approaches, such as electronic delivery of documents, which are then signed and returned via email to formally “close” the transaction. Closings continue to evolve, with law firms transitioning to the use of electronic signatures that eliminate the need for paper and further speed the process.
Lawyer-client communications will rely increasingly on tech tools, such as platforms that enable group texting. Streamlined video conferencing, enhanced office phone systems that facilitate work from anywhere, and an increased focus on client engagement via a range of modalities are trends to watch.

Courts Must Balance Access Advantages with Fairness of Remote Proceedings

While some court hearings and trials have remained in-person throughout the pandemic, with strict social distancing and other public health measures in place, the vast majority of court operations have gone online. Judges have postponed non-essential proceedings and shifted other court business to telephone conference calls or video conferences. As pandemic restrictions are lifted, in-court appearances are likely to resume, although visitor attendance may continue to be restricted. Lessons learned from the past year will undoubtedly include finding ways to integrate remote technology into daily court operations.

Research by the not-for-profit Brennan Center, however, points to a need for careful evaluation of the fairness of remote court proceedings. Advocates of expanded video conferencing for the courts argue that remote proceedings increase access, especially for courts serving large geographic regions. Critics point to inadequate Internet service in rural communities, as well as lack of access to technology and lack of privacy for individuals with less means, as reasons to return to in-person trials and hearings, once it is safe to go back to the courtroom. The mix of in-person and remote court proceedings will ultimately vary depending on type of court, type of trial or hearing, region, demographics, and other relevant factors.

Image: Marcus Winkler