ABA Practice Forward Effort to Guide Next-Generation Lawyers

The coronavirus pandemic has stimulated change throughout the legal community, whether it’s judges conducting videoconference trials and managing partners re-thinking office space needs, or lawyers innovating new ways of delivering legal services.

The American Bar Association wants to be part of that change too—ideally on its leading edge.

The Practice Forward Initiative

On July 29, a group of attorneys and experts convened by the ABA published a new online resource, Practice Forward, which, for now, is a collection of resources to support attorneys managing their practices through the current coronavirus challenge. The site contains educational materials to help attorneys and judges provide necessary legal services now and into the post-coronavirus future. Topics covered include:

  • Law practice marketing, professional development, and client relations
  • Law practice management, virtual law firms, and productivity
  • Changes in the law and approaches to legal services delivery
  • Cybersecurity and privacy protection
  • Racial equity in the justice system
  • Access to justice challenges

The ABA’s Coordinating Group on Practice Forward plans to build on the site’s existing resources by reaching out to local bar associations and other groups working on COVID-19 and law practice innovation issues. Future iterations of the site will feature their work.

The group has more ambitious plans, however. 

According to group member Jo-Ann Wallace, head of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association in Washington, D.C., the group aims to provide thought leadership and substantive law revision proposals on ethical and regulatory problems raised by COVID-19, as well as by a rapidly changing legal profession.

“We need to make sure we’re covering ethics and the practice of law in this new environment,” Wallace said. “What kind of ethical regulation and regulatory changes might we need to face? What innovation might we need to think about?”

Wallace said that the group’s work could be reflected in proposals for policy changes it would submit to the ABA House of Delegates.

Wallace made her remarks during a July 29 videoconference, part of the American Bar Association’s virtual Annual Meeting focused on how the judges and lawyers are responding to the COVID-19 health crisis and what that means for the law and the legal profession in the years ahead.

COVID’s Impact on Courts

Elizabeth Lang Miers, a Locke Lord LLP partner in Dallas, formerly a justice on the Texas Court of Appeals, Fifth District, recounted the judiciary’s efforts to deliver justice during the pandemic. Miers observed that courts were not ready to switch fully to virtual proceedings and that each jurisdiction faced the task of expanding its technological capabilities.

Additionally, Miers said, many courts are tenants in the buildings where they operate, so they have to work with government agencies and other third parties to retrofit their premises to meet COVID-19 health protocols. Funding for these efforts, as well as sanitization and technology upgrades, has also been a problem, she said.

Miers listed ways in which courts have been addressing access to justice issues—by providing safe spaces for participants inside courthouses and providing the public with access to view judicial proceedings, whether on closed circuit televisions in a separate room or online through video streaming services.

On the subject of the case backlog that has been building throughout the pandemic, Miers said that wider use of remote technologies will be part of the solution. However, she added, attorneys should expect to see judges asking for increased use of mediation to resolve disputes. Miers also predicted an increase in the use of special masters where appropriate.

“I know the courts are working very hard to try to make their dockets move as effectively and efficiently as possible,” Miers said. “They are going to need the lawyers to be as patient as they can be. I know everything is very significant, the clients’ needs are very time-sensitive, but I think they are going to need the parties to be patient with it.”

The task of whittling away at the pending case backlog has been exacerbated by increases in caseloads arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Courts have seen an increase in insurance disputes, contractual relationship disputes (e.g., force majeure issues), bankruptcies, benefits cases and CARES Act litigation, evictions, and domestic violence cases.

Future ABA Policy Development Work

During its annual meeting this week, the ABA House of Delegates will consider adopting a resolution calling on federal and state governments to provide rent assistance to persons unable to make payments.

The current federal moratorium on evictions expired July 31. While local laws in some states continue to block eviction actions, tenants in 30 states are now at risk of eviction.

Approval of the ABA rent assistance resolution places the lobbying weight of the nation’s leading bar association behind the policy, which proponents believe could be influential as Congress works on the next round of coronavirus-related spending and law revisions.

Group members said that they expected to propose additional policy positions for consideration at the ABA’s Midyear Meeting, set for Feb. 10-15, 2021, in Chicago.