Only a couple years ago, despite the inklings of an emerging virus halfway around the world, few could have predicted the advent of a global pandemic based on a variation of the virus that causes the common cold.  But here we are, slowly coming out on the other side.  Some industries flourished during the pandemic (e-commerce comes to mind), while others floundered (understandably the hospitality industry felt acute effects of lockdowns and quarantining). In the middle of the spectrum, sits the legal industry. While e-filing and e-discovery had become common practice, a broader adoption of technologies that facilitate all facets of legal services felt distant from firm hallways and courtrooms.

As the pandemic took hold in early 2020, the federal and state court systems ground to a halt.  The majority of substantive court hearings were still held in-person or with nominal dial-in appearances, and there remained a strong adherence to paper documentation. In short, courts were simply ill-equipped to handle the same volume of cases. In no way is this meant to disparage the state and federal court systems, however, it did expose the fragility of relying on traditional procedures.

The pandemic challenged all industries in unprecedented ways and many creative solutions were born from the necessity to innovate. However, the reality is it is difficult to move court dockets into a virtual world and having courts where serious decisions are rendered, is still essential to the function of our democracy. Putting big decisions and the highest courts aside, most disputes have the advantage of turning to arbitration or mediation for resolution.

Arbitration and mediation forums have fared nominally better as organizations have cobbled together tools like Dropbox, email, and video conferencing in an effort to cater to those confined by quarantine mandates, and now in response to the rise of WFH.  None of these tools are uniquely designed for the legal industry, and certainly are not ideal when applied in a patchwork of utility. Not only can it make a process disjointed, but it can also increase risks related to confidentiality, cybersecurity, and due process.

During the pandemic, legal professionals needed to be resourceful, agile, and progressive in finding new and inventive alternatives to facilitate dispute resolution. This meant adopting and embracing new technologies that were originally thought to be temporary fixes, but as the pandemic raged on, the tools we used to resolve conflict that first seemed novel, began to become expected as a new standard. Now we have the opportunity to enhance innovations created in the past couple years and fully embrace a digital evolution in the law.

The fact is, despite a plethora of hiccups, the pandemic demonstrated that virtualization works, even in its most rudimentary forms. As our society continues to stabilize, there may be areas where we revert to doing things the old way. We don’t think the reliance on in-person courtrooms will be one of those. Just imagine what we can do now that we know we are capable and well-equipped to handle disputes virtually. Given the sheer pecuniary size of the domestic legal market, there is a unique opportunity for the legal industry to become a true innovation engine. At New Era ADR, we believe we need to learn from how we adopted during the pandemic and continue to improve upon the existing technology available. It took a global pandemic, but digital revolution has come to the legal industry; it’s time we embrace it.

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