When it comes to analyzing legal industry trends for 2021, we turned to one of the greatest legal minds in Arizona.

Named one of the Top 100 Lawyers in Arizona, serving on the board of directors for the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), Sandra Day O’Connor Institute, and Greater Phoenix Leadership (among many other community organizations), Matthew P. Feeney, firm chair for Snell & Wilmer, is keenly connected to the pulse of many Arizona industries. Feeney’s career spans upwards of five decades, with representative transactions in securities offerings, mergers and acquisitions, energy, and corporate governance.

To help highlight what to expect in legal industry trends as we depart from a turbulent 2020 and embark on 2021, Feeney explores the lighter side of law trends, and what to look forward to heading into 2021—workplace flexibility, the importance of workplace diversity, and the increased value in maintaining strong internal and client relationships.

Pandemic aftermath and positive premonitions 

Matthew P. Feeney, firm chair for Snell & Wilmer.

“Without question, issues related to COVID-19 will drive most of the expected trends in 2021,” Feeney says. “Most law firms have already begun to pivot and adapt in various ways to address the challenging economic conditions. And we can expect to see a multitude of changes—some temporary and some permanent.”

Rather than upending the legal industry, Feeney predicts that the global coronavirus pandemic will likely just accelerate, and in some cases exacerbate, certain trends that the industry has already been experiencing in recent years.

The trends we can expect to see more of a focus on:

Increase in remote workplace models

“We can expect many firms to be more flexible with time worked away from the office, resulting in programs and initiatives intended to support and encourage productive work-from-home environments,” Feeney says.

Reinforcement of relationships

 Dependable external and internal relationships and connections have proven to be critical during periods of uncertainty, according to Feeney. “Clients want and need guidance during these challenging times. They will still need to turn to trusted sources of advice and counsel,” he says.

Maintaining and strengthening internal relationships in the legal industry will require frequent, transparent, and direct communications to all personnel.

Emphasis on technological support

Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic uncovered opportunities for technological support in firms around the globe. Being able to access software and technology tools is critically important, but to be fully productive, Feeney says that firms must be able to provide remote technical assistance and support for workers in need.

“Software service models look more and more attractive given their benefits to a remote workforce and their ability to offer technical support as part of their service offering,” he says, “And videoconference technology will surely be viewed differently as it becomes less about the high-priced connectivity equipment and more about investments made to support remote workers, attract lateral candidates, and allow for suitable and meaningful client interface.”

Reconsideration of real estate

With more people working remotely, combined with a desire to decrease their footprint, Feeney expects firms will increasingly seek to reduce their square footage. “Many firms have been gradually reducing their overall square footage and have been moving to a single universal office size,” he says.

Cognizance in cutting costs among legal industry trends

Although Feeney predicts that expense management, particularly when it comes to costs associated with real estate, will be an increasing priority, he also invites caution.

“Simply reducing costs will rarely, if ever, solve the problem,” says Feeney when asked about how the post-pandemic challenges may continue to affect the legal industry.

Actively practicing and involved in firm management during the 2008 Great Recession, Feeney and his colleagues were forced to endure a similarly volatile and unpredictable environment in which to operate.

“While the two crises are different in many respects, they provide similar blueprints for addressing their unique challenges,” Feeney says. “First, remain committed, yet flexible, to current strategies. Focus and build on existing strengths. Next, reduce costs quickly, but to a point. When faced with uncertain demand, firms often need to lower costs in an effort to marshal resources for a long road back.”

Waiting to reduce costs in the hope that the recovery comes quickly will put a firm in a difficult position if that gamble turns out to be wrong.

Rather than tossing the proverbial coin, Feeney recommends instead, “mining the entrepreneurial spirit that helped build the firm in the first place. The advantages that made a product or service worth more than what the cost leaders offer still apply.”

And, he adds the helpful reminder, “that most firms survived the Great Recession.”

In it for the long haul

The echo of economic uncertainty, although sure to reverberate for some time in the wake of the pandemic, will also be what shifts many industries into focusing on long-term opportunities.

“This may require the owners of businesses and real estate to take fundamental actions to ‘right-size’ their balance sheet, recast loans, leases, and other obligations to reflect new cash flow realities, and seek capital and new strategic partners to respond to the changing marketplace,” Feeney explains. “It may also afford significant opportunities for financially stronger companies and for investors to uncover new opportunities which may not otherwise have been available on favorable terms in a pre-COVID-19 environment.”

In addition to being forced to adjust to factors brought on by the pandemic, Feeney says that law firms will need to be more aware and action-oriented when it comes to diverse and inclusive workforces across the corporate landscape—including the legal profession.

“The protests and social upheaval in 2020 spotlighted the critical issues of bias, systemic racism, and racial injustice along with their impact on our communities of color,” Feeney says. “These priorities will greatly influence ongoing recruiting and operational strategies. At Snell & Wilmer, we are committed to having a diverse and inclusive workplace, with an understanding that diversity makes us stronger as a firm.”

In closing, Feeney circles back to the value and necessity of relationship-building as we make our way through the next decade. “I strongly believe that relationship-based law firms,” he says, “those that sincerely care about their clients and their issues, will continue to be successful. As such, aspiring attorneys, with the assistance of law schools, mentors, and others, should take full advantage of opportunities to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the complexities of building and enhancing relationships. This is, in essence, what it means to be a lawyer.”