AS THE Circuit Breaker measures continue, with some cautious optimism about when it may be lifted, many businesses are nevertheless resigned to the fact that they may have to persevere with their current mode of operation for some time.
Uncertainty about the behaviour of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and a vaccine still beyond reach will mean that a lot of businesses will have to be mindful of how people interact in the office and with clients.
Law firms, used to face-to-face dealings with clients in private rooms, will be forced to up the technology and security to ensure confidential business can be transacted remotely. The pandemic would have accelerated the process.
“We were already in the midst of a technology transformation project to implement cloud-based infrastructure, so our contingency plans centred around our ability to work remotely,” says Dharma Sadasivan, Associate Director of BR Law Corporation.
“We don’t think anyone was truly prepared for COVID-19, but we are very fortunate that we were better equipped to react to it than if it had hit Singapore last year.”
The full-service law firm deployed its technology transformation just as COVID-19 hit.
A. Tan, a partner in a mid-sized law firm mobilised laptops for secretaries and paralegals at his firm, which used to conduct about half its business on a face-to-face basis with clients.
“We re-engineered the financial processes to do away with physical signatures,” Tan explains.
“Our business carries on, except that court hearings are now conducted online. In the short term, the legal system is managing. In the long term, there will need to be big changes,” he reckons.
Tan says that once the Circuit Breaker restrictions are lifted, the firm will have to review its investment in modernisation and training needs.
“Operating costs may stay the same, or be reduced, but we expect revenues to be severely affected.
“Overall, the industry should see a decline of 30% in terms of revenue, because clients won’t have the liquidity to pay for services,” Tan adds.
On the upside, Tan reckons his client base is likely to grow as demand for legal services will rise, because of the disruptive effects of the pandemic on business arrangements.
“We estimate it will take half a year for the legal industry to normalise. There is a huge backlog of cases to be dealt with.”
Tan feels the current system of working from home is not ideal.
“For a firm to thrive, the members of the firm have to interact constantly with each other, to develop a team spirit, trust and familiarity. Corporate culture will be affected if people don’t see each other regularly,” he says.
Dharma believes that technology has helped BR Law in coping with the current situation, and will continue to invest further in this area.
“Law firms can independently implement technology upgrades, but we do not operate in a vacuum. As a service industry that provides support to many other industries and is regulated by a governing body, there are many moving parts that need to evolve together before new processes become normal,” he explains.
“A simple example is conveyancing, which is difficult to digitise completely. Payments are still made via cheques and cashier’s orders, and hard-copy documents must still be filed with the Singapore Land Authority. To digitise this area, changes need to be deployed across all of the organisations involved, not just law firms.
We are fortunate that our government and public agencies are remarkably tech-savvy and forward-looking, and are no doubt already considering how to further digitise essential infrastructure to prevent future disruptions.”
Tan is eager for the restrictions to be eased as he foresees a huge increase in demand for legal services. “There are new laws passed to deal with the effects of the Circuit Breaker. This will cause ripple effects in the business community,” he notes.
Dharma says the pandemic would allow the firm to approach its set up with fresh eyes. “Our ability to work remotely will also open up new possibilities such as being able to potentially relocate teams of employees outside of the central business district to reduce rental overheads.”
The enforced break seems to have given some businesses a chance to take a step back and review their operations, while taking the necessary steps to make their businesses more efficient in the post-COVID-19 era.
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