On the 11th of April 2020, Richard Wee Chambers (“RWC”) hosted an Impact Webinar on the “Impact of Covid 19 on Law Firms and Legal Services” via Facebook live. RWC was honoured to have Mr. R Jayabalan from Johor Bahru, Miss Yvonne Lim from Langkawi, Mr. Ahmad bin Alwi from Kelantan, and Mr. Choo Dee Wei from Kuala Lumpur on board the panel of speakers. RWC’s very own managing partner, Mr. Richard Wee was present as moderator.
It is evident that the spike of Covid 19 has caused works to stop in most, if not all law firms in Peninsular Malaysia. Despite the E-Review taking place for new cases, the brakes have nonetheless been applied on majority of the litigation matters. Not only do lawyers find themselves trapped in a midst of chaos trying to manage their clients’ expectations, lawyers are also not able to move forward with their clients’ instructions following the Movement Control Order (“MCO”) announced by the Prime Minister on 16 March 2020. Conveyancing lawyers, on the other hand, are also affected as they are unable to conduct registration of land titles – as land offices are closed. With works coming to a halt, law firms are immediately impacted in terms of revenue. As unfortunate as it may seem, the costs incurred by law firms however, continue to run – overhead, rental, and even employee’s remunerations. Following this, concerns were raised with regards to the cash flow of law firms.
Albeit actions taken by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (“MITI”) in expanding the list of essential services vide a Media Statement dated 10 April 2020, the Bar Council of Malaysia was of the view that law firms are not to be construed as essential services and therefore lawyers are still advised to work from home. It would certainly be challenging for the Bar Council to apply to MITI for a blanket approval for all law firms to continue to operate during the MCO, taking into account that there is no standard consideration for all law firms. With ample conditions being imposed by MITI for companies with approval to operate during the MCO, it would seem that the better option would be for lawyers to continue working from home, as concerns were raised with regards to the risks being undertaken by law firms. Essentially MITI has placed an onerous obligation on employers to ensure that the health and safety of their staffs are safeguarded by sanitisation processes. It is believed that technology has made it possible for lawyers to work remotely from their respective homes – and that this “remote lawyering” should continue for at least another six (6) months or even up to a year.
In view of the MCO, many have envisaged a huge change in the future of the bar. Legal practice will no longer be the same. Will the concept of social distancing be incorporated into the management of law firms? What about smaller firms with limited spaces? Would a staff rotation programme be introduced? How then would the employers remunerate their respective employees, taking into account that the new norm is no longer working for five (5) days a week? It is anticipated that the merger of certain law firms which are smaller in size would take place. Commercial lawyers should not be taken aback as there will be more emphasis by their clients on the Force Majeure clauses in contracts.
It is believed that the MCO will transform lawyers into technologically savvy people. Clients who have insisted to meet their lawyers physically in the past, would now have to resort to Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet and many other online platforms as their main conduit of communication. It is of paramount importance for lawyers to maintain the solicitor-client relationship and the trust arising out of it, despite not being able to meet physically. Clients who are reluctant to pay their legal fees via online payments would have to do away with the traditional “coming in person to pay cash” and instead, step forward in the direction of digital transformation. While clients embrace the change that technology has brought about, lawyers should also step up their game by utilising technology to provide legal services. It is undeniable that lawyers were taught and trained in such a rigid manner – that is to follow what has been done all these years and not to depart from precedents. The spike of Covid 19 and the MCO is certainly a golden opportunity for lawyers to well equip themselves in moving towards the IT savvy direction. The concept of reverse mentorship would come into play in terms of IT, as lawyers of the older generation would require assistance and support from the younger lawyers in terms of harnessing the technology available. The only concern raised was that the Bar Council would possibly have to relook into the rules governing lawyers in light of the advancement in technology.
Last but not least, it is envisaged that there will be a reduction in collection of legal fees following the MCO. Perhaps lawyers should reconsider the way their legal fees are being charged, their fee structure, mechanism, as well as collection.
Published on April 13th, 2020