Impact of COVID-19 on Law Firms: Looking Back, Moving Forward
The legal industry of March 2021 looks (and functions) much differently than that of March 2020. In the year since the World Health Organization and President Donald Trump declared COVID-19 a pandemic and national emergency, businesses throughout the country have faced enormous challenges and staggering anxiety regarding the future.
Today, things are looking up. The legal industry has been on a steady uptick since late summer. Caseloads have recovered across most practice areas with several exceeding baseline levels, and firms have learned valuable lessons about technology and adaptation that can only benefit them post-pandemic.
It’s uncanny comparing the “calm before the storm” of last March to today, but reflection is necessary to move forward. And move forward you will. Some of COVID-19’s impact on law firms includes growth in certain practice areas.
Yet, even practice areas that have declined since COVID’s emergence have the opportunity to reset priorities and work toward regrowth. Mass vaccinations have restored hope, anticipation, and drive among many legal professionals.
In this blog, we’ll unpack some of the prominent Google search trends affecting the legal industry, and we’ll turn to some past downturns to give law firm leaders perspective and priorities for the future.
Legal Google Search Trends
At EverSpark, Google is our bread and butter. We spend hours poring through data on platforms like Google Trends and Google Search Console. We’ve noticed significant shifts in how and what people are searching for on everyone’s favorite search engine, legal services included.
As a law firm SEO agency, EverSpark is hell-bent on getting our clients to the top of the SERP, pandemic or no. The images below were taken from Google Trends for visualization of how clients’ search habits have changed since last March. This is a treasure trove for law firms; the data will show you what you should be focusing on and will help you form a strategy to launch your business ahead of competitors.
We know – this graph looks like a mess. It’s pretty easy to understand, though. The terms “personal injury lawyer near me,” “real estate attorney near me,” “family lawyer near me,” and “business lawyer near me” all featured their own rises and falls in search volume, but a couple of practice areas fared worse than the others.
For example, you can see that the search volume for “mergers and acquisitions attorney” from March 1, 2020 to March 1, 2021 had several huge spikes and drops, then a long and ominous lag where there was virtually no search volume.
However, in the period from March 1, 2019 to March 1, 2020, there was constant search volume for that keyword. There weren’t as many big spikes as the 2020-2021 period, but there wasn’t a complete dropoff, either.
The following graphs were obtained from Clio’s Legal Trends Report, an ongoing, real-time data analysis of tens of thousands of legal professionals using practice management software. We’ll start with the practice areas that saw an increase in cases, or new matter volume, from January to December 2020.
This is the most recent data available, so keep in mind that there could be discrepancies in the three months since the report was published. The black line represents the US average for cases across all practice areas.
Appellate court cases surged through the summer and early fall of 2020, and although fewer cases were reported in the late fall and early winter, the data suggests an uptick once again. The surge could have been due to the rise in argument streaming, a feature that all 13 federal appeals courts approved during the pandemic.
Business interruption lawsuits, business loss coverage, liability policies – 2020 was a busy year for insurance companies, meaning it was a busy year for insurance lawyers, too. The steady rise in insurance cases is expected to continue well into 2021, and insurance lawyers are needed to define coverage exclusions regarding risks.
Some people have returned to their offices or workplaces, but many haven’t – and likely won’t for the foreseeable future. It’s unlikely that commercial buildings will be at capacity anytime soon, meaning pervasive short-term or flexible leases for tenants. Subletting is also expected to increase as companies cut back on their in-office schedules to meet growth and financial needs.
Commercial real estate lawyers will be called upon in each of those situations to adapt to a new reality.
Thanks to the economic upheaval caused by COVID-19, many businesses are finding it difficult to honor their contracts. The pandemic has impacted manufacturing, transportation, and cross-border supply chains globally, with some companies alleging that the virus constitutes a force majeure event (unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract).
In the coming months, sales lawyers can expect to gain clients of companies issuing or receiving force majeure notices.
Just as the 2008 recession helped to stimulate new companies and businesspeople, a host of new business owners is likely to emerge after the COVID pandemic. Business lawyers will be in high demand as business owners anticipate defaults, forbearances, alterations of short-term payment plans, and growth endeavors.
Clients will also need help with business incorporation and legal protection, and there’ll be more demand for determining tax and entity status.
Of course, these particular COVID-19 impacts on law firms do not mean all practice areas experienced an increase in new matter volume. The graph above is a prime example of when a practice area more or less stays the same.
While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing (especially during a deleterious pandemic), it’s not good for growth, and stagnancy can spell disaster over time. If your law firm is in a static, slow-moving place, check out our section below where we highlight some items that can help your firm recover.
The historical link between high unemployment rates and bankruptcy filings led many financiers to anticipate over 200,000 additional consumer bankruptcy filings in the second quarter of 2020 alone. As it turned out, there were 81,000 fewer filings, and from January through August, there were 139,000 fewer bankruptcy filings than expected.
The reason for a decline in filings – and a lesser demand for bankruptcy lawyers – could be due to the fact that many people don’t have access to the courts or can’t afford to file or hire a lawyer. Of course, the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package awarded by the federal government, also helped.
The need for criminal lawyers has decreased during the coronavirus pandemic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that crime has decreased, too. Plenty of news outlets claim that lockdowns and stay-in-place orders led to a drastic decrease in crime, but they based those claims on the number of calls made to the police in a given period.
We know that cases of domestic violence have increased in the past year, and the data spread by news sources are all from big cities. For the most accurate depiction of crime in the United States, we’ll need statistics from small and mid-size towns.
People who stay at home most of the time are less likely to be involved in a personal injury-related accident. Because many people followed federal and state guidelines by staying home, there was less demand for personal injury lawyers in 2020, and that trend has carried over into 2021.
Although plenty of lawsuits have been filed against employers and business owners by people seeking to recover financial and emotional damages caused by long-lasting COVID symptoms, several states have passed limited tort liability laws protecting businesses to an extent.
It’s unclear when we can expect to see personal injury lawsuits return to their pre-COVID abundance, but it will likely take a few more months at least.
Lessons Learned in the Past
The financial distress caused by the outbreak and subsequent unfolding of the COVID-19 virus into one of the most minacious and easily transmissible diseases is not entirely unique.
The Great Recession of 2008-2009 is a prime example of how the legal industry is fully capable of adaptation to several significant market changes and environments. Here are some of the lessons that law firms learned in the years of and following the Great Recession, lessons that are transferable to the current climate:
- Law firms had to adjust to changing client expectations, including the creation of “virtual firms” to meet clients’ needs.
- Law firms had to adjust their pricing as clients more and more frequently noted competitive pricing as a definitive hiring factor.
- Law firms had to adopt and learn many aspects of technology that allow them to perform legal-related tasks in non-traditional ways.
- Law firms had to become more competitive as clients moved “down market” for certain legal services that were in alignment with their budget.
COVID-19 has upturned many areas of life and disrupted business more than we can fathom, but if there’s one thing lawyers know, it’s that the law is resolute and unwavering. Law firms have been through hell before, and they can do it again.
The key is adaptability and resolve – two traits that lawyers have in abundance.
If you’re a lawyer or marketing director for a law firm, you might feel that nothing will be the same again. That’s unnerving, but we hope you can find peace of mind in the fact that the only constant is change. Everything changes, and sometimes it takes a pandemic to get the ball rolling.
Whatever happens, EverSpark is here to help lawyers achieve their goals and expand their firms in an ever-changing world. If you’re concerned about COVID-19’s impact on your law firm in the coming months, call us today to learn more – we’d love to work with you.
Lessons Learned During the Pandemic & Priorities Moving Forward
There’ve been plenty of lessons learned – good and bad – in this year-long ordeal. We know you’ve heard (and likely experienced) plenty of the bad, so we’re here to change the narrative and provide some of the positive lessons of the past year.
- Partners of law firms are more likely to accept the role that technology plays in providing effective, high-quality legal services. In fact, a survey conducted by Acritas Sharplegal found that 84% of partners expected their firms to invest in more technology.
- Most law firms have significantly cut costs by making fundamental (sometimes difficult) changes in operations, including making more efficient use of office and administrative space, reducing business travel, and making digital connections more efficient.
- It’s no secret that lawyers are often stressed and high-strung; the pandemic helped to change that by allowing attorneys to focus more on mental health, wellbeing, and work-life balance.
- Lawyers are now more open and accepting than they ever were, and that’s a trend likely to continue. Legal professionals are more in tune with their clients and more likely to work closely with them and other legal professionals, and they’re more open to new models of practice.
In the same vein, the priority for every single law firm should be – wait for it – clients. That’s probably not a surprise, but sometimes it helps to be reminded about who the work is really for at the end of the day.
Now is the time to be there for your clients, to be proactive and genuine. Listen to your clients and take the time to follow up with them. Everyone is going through a lot, and you’ll send the right message by being extra-diligent and kind in your dealings with clients.
A proactive client relationship should include education. What makes your firm stand out from the other thousands of firms like yours should be the number of educational resources available to your clients. Write blogs, create infographics, record videos or podcasts, and put them out into the world to share your knowledge with clients and make yourself a trusted, knowledgeable source. Trust us – not all lawyers do that.
One more thing your firm should treat as a priority – fortification measures. You need to know which areas you want to develop in how much time. Continue your in-flight or established strategic initiatives, and consider accelerating partnerships now to sustain and eventually grow your firm. Funding these priorities now will help you now, but also when the pandemic is sorted out.
Don’t wait until the pandemic is “over” to implement these measures – everyone else will have beat you to it.
Let Our Law Firm SEO Experts Help You Move Forward
Many things have changed during the coronavirus pandemic, but many things remain the same. One of those is the need for lawyers. People will always need lawyers, but you need to meet them where they are. The times are ever-changing, and you can’t get away with the same-old, same-old techniques for obtaining and retaining clients.
EverSpark is here to help you in these times of uncertainty. As a law firm SEO agency, we’ve helped dozens of lawyers expand and be more competitive in areas they never thought possible. Let us help you achieve your goals; call us today to schedule your strategy session.