It’s 9am or so in Lagos and the courts are without the usual bustle of litigants and influx of counsel for the day’s business. Clearly, I forgot to set my daily alarm hence I got up a bit behind schedule.
I check my inbox and all 10 emails begin with “trust you are keeping safe in these uncertain times”.
No cause for alarm. Perhaps the day will start properly by noon, I muse as I write my daily to-do list, only this time I am not at my desk at the Adunola. Oh wow, it’s now 1pm and I’m neither at the Bistro nor ordering lunch, rather, I’m making noodles in my kitchen while trying to complete my review of a facility agreement in time for a deadline.
As the day progresses, emails trickle in with three virtual teleconferences in sight.
Well, at least it is Friday, and, by 4pm, rather than converging in our freezing-cold, deluxe meeting room, all I hear, from the comfort of my room at home, is “if you aren’t speaking, please mute your line”. But then, just in case I had any doubts as to what day of the week it is, a client drops an email to chase on that DD checklist, so, it’s business as usual or maybe not.
I check with my colleagues elsewhere and alas it is the same on Bank Road, Awolowo Way and at the Octagon. The reality hits, the impact of Covid-19 is in full effect.
The economic impact of this pandemic has been thoroughly analysed by experts and won’t be repeated here. For context, the global economy is projected to lose circa US$2.7 trillion and we have already seen central banks in more than 50 countries take austerity measures with a view to shoring up their economies and cushioning the impact of this ravaging plague.
Across the world, businesses have been pushed to their limits and many have halted operations, while the more daring and innovative ones have creatively devised alternate models of operation to continue to create value and generate income in these trying times. Law firms are no different. Globally they have restricted international travel, maintained only audio and virtual meetings with clients, and, in Nigeria, in line with Federal and State directives, courts have closed the cause list attending only to urgent matters.
Admittedly, a strained economy will affect deal flow. However, for professional services, business continuity in times like these is imperative not least because the path to full recovery of the global economy will inextricably involve lawyers, just as we saw in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008. Thus, whether I am at home in my pyjamas or at work in corporate wear, my job as a lawyer is driven by my client’s deliverables and can be effectively done from my desk at work or my bed! In any event, it’s still the same computer.
Presently, White and Case LLP has already advised on the £216 million share placing by SSP Group plc on the Premium Segment of the London Stock Exchange – the first coronavirus-related fundraiser in the UK while Allen and Overy earlier this month advised on the first (Covid-19 Impact Alleviation) social bonds issuance from a Chinese issuer in the international capital markets.
The real winner in all these are the IT systems already in place. Emails, teleconferences, video conferencing, Microsoft Teams, re-routing desk phones to mobile, WebEx, Zoom calls etc. all depend on robust IT infrastructure to function. Today, lawyers are: holding video conferences to negotiate transaction documents in place of international travel; discussing key commercial issues with clients over a call rather than a physical meeting; and even arbitration hearings, where the panel of arbitrators and counsel are spread over different continents, are still ongoing via video conferencing channels.
It just occurred to me that, to finalise this issues table and send to the counterparty on this deal, I need to review the security documents. Oh no! The documents are in the client’s file in the file room at the office. We have been directed to stay at home and, in fact, the office is closed for now with everyone working remotely. What do I do? Should I call the client to say we can’t deliver? Or call my partner to explain the situation? Thankfully, there is a central filing system accessible online where all client documents are safely kept for times like this. I will now write to the client confidently and say, “having reviewed the security documents, please find attached our preliminary thoughts”. Again, IT to the rescue!
For some law firms, the outbreak of Covid-19 did not catch them unprepared as they had, in line with the times, invested in reliable IT systems prior to the outbreak. For others who never saw the need, I hope that the recent turn of events, as well as this piece, convinces them otherwise. I assure you, it’s a worthy investment.
While we hope that the scourge of Covid–19 quickly abates, I do hope that its lessons and gains would be imbibed with a view to improving efficiency and productivity in the workplace. As I see it, the outbreak and continuous spread of Covid–19 has changed the conduct of business as we know it and it is expected that the legal services industry will adapt quickly to continue working smart or risk getting left behind, after this crisis has passed.
At last, given this is a global crisis, I think I should close by 7pm and go to bed by 8pm. Finally, my long-awaited period of getting the eight hours sleep recommended by medical experts is here. Hang on, I just got an email from my partner, new instruction, kick off call is at 8pm and the client has requested for papers to be prepared through the night as they are keen on commencing the arbitration tomorrow. Sigh…so much for sleeping early! But how do we file, you wonder, as we are effectively in a lockdown? Not to worry, arbitration proceedings may proceed nonetheless with the use of technology. Parties and tribunals may rely on audio and video conferencing facilities for hearings and conduct of proceedings. Indeed, China has adopted the use of "internet courts" to handle litigation procedures online from filing a case to issuing judgment documents, while nearly all global arbitral institutions including the ICC and LCIA have issued remote working notices and leveraging IT systems to deliver arbitration services – again, IT to the rescue. But shouldn’t Nigerian courts adopt the same approach? Forgive me, but when courts still record oral testimony in longhand, we all know why matters can’t go on during this period.
In the aftermath of this crisis, lawyers will return to the courts in the months and years to test the boundaries of the traditional principles of force majeure and frustration within the context of contractual obligations in the face of this deadly virus. I hope university students are reminded to pay attention in their ever relevant Law of Contract module. Perhaps, they could pick up some of the work when they start practicing, after all, some of the cases may still be pending before the Supreme Court.
What is sure is that these times are strange and uncertain, and I do not know any other profession due for the change that comes with these times than the legal profession. Only that the change that I seek is permanent and in much more pleasant circumstances than what we see today. Welcome to the new normal, one can only hope that one day, IT itself will not need to be rescued.
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