Making Work, Work

The COVID crisis brought on a lot of questionable behaviours in people, but it also brought a lot of extraordinary deeds from people who helped total strangers through rough times. At Obelisk, as the pandemic spread, we started noticing examples of how much good can come from the legal profession. After we published our annual Lawyers who do good list in April 2020, we realised that we should publish a COVID19 edition of “Lawyers who do good” to reflect on how the legal profession got involved positively in times of crisis. Including a rebel legaltech entrepreneur, a music-writing law professor, a frontline supplier lawyer and summer vacation students on a mission, this sampler invites you to discover Law for Good in COVID19 times.

In the community with the song-writing law professor

A University of Calgary legal academic, associate professor Howard Kislowicz, found a creative way to alleviate food insecurity during the pandemic. As his family made efforts to grocery shop less often, the larger stocks of food in his house led him to consider how difficult this time must be for those with limited resources. As a Constitutional Law professor in Canada and music-lover/maker, he took to Twitter and offered to create songs in exchange for donations to local food banks. His main goals were to raise money for food banks, bring a bit of joy to people’s lives, and find a project to keep him feeling positive.

A long-time musician, Howard has been playing with longtime bandmate Shai Korman in the band What Does It Eat and in 2018, the law professor embarked on a long-haul project called “The Most Reasonable Album“, setting to music Canada’s 1982 Constitution Act. His COVID fundraising campaign included a song for a colleague at another law school in Canada about her dog, Scraps, a song for a colleague, a human rights lawyer, who wanted to celebrate her daughter’s relationship with her boyfriend, and a number of songs for people’s children, including some people he’d never met – one of them made a great photo-video using the song as a backing track. His most recent project was a welcome song for the incoming class at the law school where he works – their director of admissions realised that these students would be starting out in a very strange and difficult time and wanted to recognise that.

So far his campaign has raised at least $1,000 in donations to food banks. For a musical taster, you can listen to his song on embracing failure on Spotify and if you want to contribute to his efforts, he confirmed on Twitter that “the offer of a personalized song in exchange for a food bank donation still stands!”

Behind the scenes with the frontline supply lawyer

In April 2020, Golnar Assari, an Obelisk consultant specialised in commercial law, focused her activity on COVID19 work and the supply of face masks/PPEs. At a time when the UK media reported shortages in protective equipment for medical staff and the public, Golnar worked behind the scenes to change that. It all started in 2019 when she began advising a B2B manufacturer of non-woven media used in face masks, providing support in contracts’ review and in implementing the new Medical Device Regulation 2017/745. At the COVID19 outbreak, they asked her for an extended support to face the surge in contracts they were dealing with.

Interestingly, her role quickly moved from contract review to something very different and unexpected. With manufacturing lines already performing at full capacity, the pressure from customers, and even governments, to deliver non-woven products was very high. To cope with demand, her client developed new products and alternative media, eventually installing several new manufacturing lines for finished face masks. As face masks — whether medical devices, PPEs, or general-use masks — are highly regulated, the go-to-market process involved some internal regulatory education. When the client’s sales and marketing teams might have sold a media in a category it did not belong to, she explained the complexities of following quality requirements and obtaining regulatory approvals. This was not always easy as the urgent, somehow chaotic, need for face masks led to customers putting pressure down their supply chain, sometimes with unacceptable requests. In a new industry where players still lacked maturity and knowledge, this was tricky. Golnar’s expertise enabled her to  support the marketing, product development, and quality departments, in understanding the regulatory landscape in the world of medical devices, PPEs and general-use face masks. This included creating appropriate disclaimers, advising on applicable standards and ensuring packaging and labelling rules compliance, as well as clarifying what could or not be done with a certain material based on its properties, or obtaining required CE marking derogations when needed.

For Golnar, this experience was rewarding as well as challenging, as all stakeholders wished to support the crisis as best they could. This experience also opened her eyes on the media and the public’s confusion on the shortage faced in the UK a few months ago and she quickly started advising her family and friends on what EN norms they should be looking for on their face masks. Overall, the most rewarding part was to know that she was contributing, with a trusted high quality supplier, in providing face masks to hospitals across Europe, including to the NHS. She says, “There could not have been a better use of my time during lockdown!”

Tech in the fight for consumer rights with the robot lawyer

Joshua Browder, founder and CEO of DoNotPay, helps people fight big corporations using chatbot technology and AI screening to provide free legal services such as contesting parking tickets, cancelling subscriptions/memberships after the free trial or suing landlords in court. This LegalTech Robin Hood found renewed purpose when the COVID crisis hit, as DoNotPay saw huge spikes in certain legal services categories such as airline refunds or gym membership cancellations, or saw demand for new legal services such as claiming unemployment.

The idea for DoNotPay came to Joshua when he was a software engineering student in San Francisco, accumulating parking tickets. As he couldn’t pay them, he created an app to start contesting them and when his app proved extremely popular with other people, he realised that some areas of consumer rights were largely underserved. He went on to expand the range of services offered by his app to disrupt the legal landscape. His automated tools shifted the balance of power for consumers, offering them to explain in everyday language what the problem was and creating automated legal documents to solve it.

As the COVID19 crisis resulted in increased consumer rights breaches, DoNotPay was quick to counteract with the introduction of new legal services. When local governments issued emergency regulations to address COVID19 issues, few people knew the fine details and a lot of people were taken advantage of. Abuses included tenants being evicted from their homes when they couldn’t pay rent because they lost their job, landlords accessing IRS databases to claim rent from jobless tenants when they received their stimulus package, or airlines treating refund requests by handing out travel credits when nobody wanted travel credits from airlines that could go bankrupt the following year. Also a consequence of COVID19, people were spammed for exploitative miracle cures or random marketing scams, which pushed DoNotPay to create new processes to claim compensation by creating legal document to fight for their rights. In 85% of COVID19 cases, DoNotPay disputes were successful.

What can lawyers learn from Joshua Browder’s experience? Technically, Joshua is convinced that lawyers don’t need to be expert coders to automate any document that they’ve done more than once but the biggest learning comes from his approach. When providing legal services, lawyers should focus on being customer-centric. Law is meant to serve people, a message that has sometimes gotten lost.

Providing probono legal advice with volunteering law students

A group of 40 law students from The University of Manchester are set to volunteer their services during their holidays to help people affected by the coronavirus pandemic. From Monday, 15 June, the students will be providing written and video advice online in five areas of law particularly impacted by the virus – carers, family, employment, consumer and housing. The University’s Justice Hub and Legal Advice Centre has long provided vacation schemes but this year’s has been moved online because of the pandemic.

“The scheme is giving 40 School of Social Science students the opportunity to have a virtual vacation scheme placement with the aim of producing short information videos to help the public in key areas that have been impacted by Covid-19,” said Claire McGourlay, Professor of Legal Education. “Solicitors, barristers and a video editing company Video Cake are also all giving up their time for free to help the students to produce the videos.”

For more information, you can follow Manchester University’s Justice Hub here:

Do you want to share other COVID19 stories in the legal world? Email us here.

Photo credits:

  • Howard Koslowicz – University of Calgary
  • Golnar Assari – Golnar Assari
  • Joshua Browder – Twitter @jbrowder1
  • Manchester Justice Hub – Manchester University – School of Social Sciences
The Legal Update

Last week, we joined two different online events that tackled the impact of COVID-19 and the future of the legal profession from different angles. The first event, focused on law firms, featured Mark Cohen and Richard Susskind in a LegalGeek webinar, while the second was organised by Ari Kaplan with Bob Ambrogi as guest speaker in a relaxed lunch & learn format. What did we learn?

#1 Tech is every legal team’s best friend

It’s a fact: the legal workforce has become a remote workforce in the span of a week. All over the world, legal teams have had no choice but to adapt to lockdown restrictions forcing them out of office buildings. As Robert Ambrogi recently wrote, the speed at which lawyers were able to get up and running outside of their office was staggering with 90% of lawyers making the transition in a week or less and 46% in a day or less. For in-house legal teams already using Microsoft tools, Microsoft Teams has become the go-to meeting spot while others have jumped onto the Zoom or Google Meet bandwagon.

However, tech adoption hasn’t been equal everywhere with in-house legal teams leading the tech revolution and law firms lagging behind, despite claims to the contrary. As a general counsel said, “we’ve worked with legal clients for 25 years, and the gap in understanding remote working communication technology was already widening in the past 5 to 10 years. [The Covid crisis] has just sped up the mindset shift from those who were already starting to embrace technology. The shift has now moved from accepting that the tech is required to understanding how best to integrate it over the longer term with support.”

Whatever the tech solution, the number one take away from the crisis is that latent technologies already existed to collaborate in new ways and have enabled us to understand that traditional models are no longer necessary. Lawyers can work remotely in an integrated fashion. The nature of legal practice has changed to the extent that it could possibly be malpractice to not be technically capable, as tech access, data security, data movement, etc are all part of modern legal services.

#2 Medicine and law may have a lot more in common than previously thought

Ultimately, law is the business of knowledge, much like medicine is the business of health. Like lawyers, doctors were hit full force by the COVID-19 tsunami and remote medicine became the new normal but that is not where similarities stop. In an analogy with the medical sector, Ari Kaplan argues that the legal system needs to move on to a triage system where when you have a problem, you don’t start with a specialist. In medicine, you start with a GP and then move onwards. We might be headed to a legal ecosystem of tools that will help companies sort out more of their own issues, have access to more standardised processes and involve fewer lawyers doing the work.

For Mark Cohen too, the current legal business model is outdated and legal buyers have access to more information than ever before. In the future, law will be a marketplace where it won’t be about pedigree or brand or Oxbridge or Magic Circle but about competency, metrics of customer satisfaction and skills. Taken a step further, this model means that legal buyers will eventually not need legal practitioners to be licensed. Not all future practitioners will be certified lawyers and that is a good thing. If GCs are buying legal knowledge, do they need a qualified solicitor when a legal engineer can do the job as efficiently?

Inevitably, this will reshape the landscape of legal education and training. Up until 20 years ago, legal expertise was the only thing that lawyers needed to succeed. Today, lawyers need augmented skills such as project management, understanding of supply chains, basics of data management and analytics. Lawyers have to be able to read a balance sheet. In addition, they need to master the basics of technology and understand how tech is used in the legal marketplace.

The lawyers of tomorrow will be tech-enhanced multi-disciplinary advisers, which gives a big leg up to millennials and Gen Z who choose virtual environments wherever possible and who as digital natives, are already comfortable with tech
. As Mark Cohen once said, law is not about lawyers anymore but about legal professionals.

#3 Pricing, pricing, pricing

For law firms, the billable hour is the biggest part of the business model that needs to change. Robert Ambrogi went as far as saying that it’s the greatest obstacle to innovation in law firms as it’s founded on the premise of inefficiency.

  • Most participants agreed that restructuring fees would be an opportunity for tech-savvy lawyers who would be able to create digital offers and reach their clients more efficiently.
  • For the time-being, law firms should be putting out COVID-19 pricing or flat rates during hard times.
  • Past the COVID-19 crisis, lawyers would start charging based on the result delivered. If clients are charged for value delivered, it doesn’t matter where the work is done or how long it takes.
  • Others suggested rendering legal services by subscription as a way to offer “more for less” legal services.
  • For multi-month contracts, legal suppliers could offer a flat, monthly retainer that makes it easier to plan and budget for clients, while realigning the focus of suppliers on deliverables.

#4 Law is a buyer’s market

According to Mark Cohen, “consumers are now driving the legal bus and that will accelerate post-covid.” For a few years, GCs have already been experiencing the future of legal with the “doing more with less” challenge, adhering to budgets and considering where they buy their legal services. Until now, long relationships forged between traditional legal providers and companies have somewhat shaped legal buying but with stricter budget controls, clients will realise that they can get the same value from a range of different providers” ie Big 4, companies like Obelisk Support, managed service providers etc.

The COVID crisis is effectively empowering big corporations to set demands and we recently saw an example of that when BT announced to their legal panel that they would look at things like expertise, experience, culture, approach to innovation, and diversity and inclusion to select their legal suppliers. In incentivising the panel firms to adhere to the principles of a charter signed by the client, BT is forcing cultural changes within their supply chain.

#5 Metrics vs Values

Based on Mark Cohen’s observations on US law firm culture, metrics like profit-per-partner (PPP), profit origination are the measures of success and drivers of law firm culture. Law’s scorecard in how it treats its own profession is currently very low – including higher rates of suicide, divorce, drug abuse, and alcoholism than many other professions. Every metric of despair points to the fact that lawyers are doing well financially as a group but yet they’re not very happy.

Yet in the UK, pointed Richard Susskind, there is a growing concern about profit versus purpose. This COVID-19 period is a fundamental challenge to values. Law firms that responded in the first two weeks saying they cared about people and two weeks later, fired them, will have a problem. They’ll be seen as purely profit-making companies.

The virus has given us an opportunity to look at how legal services can be delivered differently and that is the greatest impact of the virus on the legal world. The crisis offers an opportunity to step back and contemplate what’s important to us, noting that it’s hard to change values as you move along. 
Sooner than later, vendor profiles won’t just include security profiles and corporate history. Clients will start asking about in-depth work from home measures, commitment to gender and diversity equality, as evidenced in the report Built to last? A blueprint for developing future-proof in-house teams.