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How Law Firms Are Shifting Their Ethics in 2023

Rebecca Spiegel

Written by

Rebecca Spiegel


March 2, 2023

How Law Firms Are Shifting Their Ethics in 2023

If you’ve been a legal professional for a long time, you know that almost everything about running a law firm has changed in the last three years. From where we work to what we value, the pandemic and The Great Resignation have driven us to reexamine every inch of our processes and priorities to determine what truly matters to us.

And as our report, The Great Automation: How Law Firms Are Entering a New Era in 2023, reveals, the last three years have also significantly impacted our approach to legal ethics. We’re no longer working in offices full-time, resignation rates are higher than ever, and clients have new expectations for how they’d prefer to work with their legal teams. In response, law firm leaders are adjusting their ethical standards and workplace cultures:

32% of legal professionals say their ethics have shifted in the past three years

Survey respondents told us that Continuing Legal Education (CLEs) credits are the most common way they stay up-to-date on legal and ethical issues, with Bar meetings and conferences coming in at a close second.

Let’s look at a few key areas where law firms say their ethics are changing as we enter a new era.

How legal ethics have changed in the last three years

90% of law firms adopted new technology in the last two years.

How have your priorities around ethics changed since COVID-19 began?

Remote work

While 60% of survey respondents told us they worked from the office five days a week pre-pandemic, a hybrid work environment is now an expected standard. The ability to conduct legal work from anywhere isn’t just good for law firm staff — it’s what clients expect, too:

  • 55% of law firms have a hybrid working model
  • 68% of legal clients prefer virtual meetings

Legal professionals encounter confidential case details daily, from personal emails and phone numbers to private documents. And with a dispersed workforce, it can be harder to keep those details secure. And while survey respondents were clear that the option to work remotely has many benefits, it also presents new ethical concerns.

So how can law firms keep client information protected and confidential while working remotely? One survey respondent hit the nail on the head: “New technology helps me stay more vigilant in our ethics.”

Legal practice management software centralizes every aspect of your firm’s casework, including your client data. On one easy platform, legal staff can securely enter client details, send encrypted documents for signature, save texts and emails, and more. This kind of technology keeps case information safe and in the right hands while making it accessible to the right staff members from anywhere, at any time.

“Remote work has become an enduring standard for law firms looking to retain talent, build stronger client relationships, and cut costs in the face of a recession. But we’ve had to adopt a lot of technology in a short amount of time, and our workforces didn’t have much time to implement and learn these new platforms. So continuing education is crucial to ensure your staff understands technology best practices, and know how to protect your confidential client data.”

— Smokeball Client

Diversity, equity and inclusion

While we’ve made some encouraging strides recently, the legal industry is generally known to be lagging when it comes to DEI. Women, people of color, and LGTBTQ+ individuals are less likely to hold leadership positions, receive fewer mentorship opportunities, and have higher attrition rates than their white male counterparts.

As national conversations around social justice have become commonplace, law firm leaders face another ethical imperative: combatting our industry’s history of racism, sexism, and elitism. It starts with strengthening hiring practices to include a wider talent pool, sourcing legal staff from non-traditional backgrounds, and carving out a dedicated budget and talent to lead DEI efforts.

But the work doesn’t stop there. Paul Fischer, President of Thomson Reuters’ Legal Professionals business, says law firms need to apply a DEI lens to every single aspect of their organization:

“It’s going to take a lot more than a press release about a new DEI initiative or an annual ESG report to solve these issues. Based on our ongoing research and conversations with associates and law firm leaders who are tackling this issue head-on, it’s becoming clear that law firms that are succeeding are those that have built DEI directly into their operating structures.”

Law firm leaders have an ethical responsibility to their employees to do better when it comes to DEI, and they also owe it to their clients. Legal teams should be as diverse as their clients and caseloads are. And a more well-rounded staff means a broader range of perspectives, stronger case strategies, and better representation in court. Everyone wins when clients see themselves represented in their legal team.

Lawyer burnout prevention with legal tech

In the legal industry, we’re no strangers to late nights, long days in court, and stressful caseloads that can lead to overwhelming anxiety and depression. Law firm burnout is a genuine concern, especially as remote work blurs the lines between professional and personal.

Law firms have an ethical responsibility to their staff and their clients to encourage healthy work habits and build a culture that prioritizes rest. Respondents to our Great Automation survey say their firms are paying more attention to physical and mental health practices, and some firms have regular meetings to discuss concerns about burnout and workplace culture.

Again, legal technology is a part of the solution. Administrative chores significantly contribute to burnout, and repeatable tasks (like logging billable hours or copy-pasting client data across multiple legal forms) are bogging your staff down.

Mobile phone users spend 80% of their overall app usage on three apps.

Mobile phone users spend 80% of their overall app usage on three apps.

Legal professionals want one place where they can manage their entire workday. Automating the entire legal process, from time-tracking to document management to task workflows, reduces inefficiencies and wasted hours. The less time your team spends burning themselves out on administrative work, the more time they can spend on what really matters: building client relationships and winning cases.

Fundamental changes in how lawyers practice today

From how we protect our clients to who we hire, the law firms we surveyed were clear: a new era for the legal industry calls for a wholesome review of our ethical standards. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle: law firms told us that so much more has changed in the last three years, and there are fundamental differences in how we’re approaching operational processes, client relationship-building, and technology investment. Read more about the state of the law in our 2023 Annual State of Law Report >

Download: Smokeball's 2023 State of the Law Report

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