Stuart Fuller, the global head of the legal services arm of Big Four accounting firm KPMG, expects the COVID-19 crisis to ultimately change the way law around the world is practiced.
Fuller has been dealing with the impacts of the coronavirus crisis longer than many law firm leaders, as KPMG has offices across Asia and in addition to overseeing global operations, he is the Asia Pacific regional leader for legal services.
Fuller noted that a critical message emerged from Hong Kong and Shanghai before the crisis took hold around the rest of the world. And it has become KPMG’s short-term mantra: Don’t stop what you’re doing—change the way you do it.
“Don’t stop engaging with your teams; don’t stop engaging with your clients; don’t stop having client meetings or client conferences or continuing legal education or insight sessions—just convert the way you do it all into the virtual,” he said from KPMG’s Sydney offices.
Long-term, the COVID-19 crisis will change the way law is practiced worldwide and law firms and businesses need to prepare, he said, adding that the transformation will be particularly great for traditional law firms.
For now, KPMG has taken steps to adapt. As it ramps up its response to the global spread of the virus, it is using meeting technology to communicate more frequently with staff. A WhatsApp group links the major country leaders, while Fuller holds 15-minute Skype video “pop-up” meetings with members of his team each morning.
The short, sharp meetings take the place of the informal chats that would have intuitively happened each day in the office to work out what needs to be done. “What’s everybody doing today? And is everybody okay? And what do you need to get done that you might be challenged in getting done if you’re working from home?”
Fuller is also pursuing short and frequent communication with the 2,600-strong Global Legal Services team, particularly to celebrate a success and let people feel there is some business-as-normal going on.
Since Monday, the Australian arm of the firm split into two teams, with each working alternate weeks in the office. But the majority of staff have chosen to work from home. Sydney is not currently in lockdown.
Staff at other KPMG Law offices, including in Italy, France and other parts of continental Europe, as well as in the U.K., Hong Kong, Shanghai, Canada and Brazil, are already working from home, often at the direction of government.
In this, the firm has an advantage because working remotely, be it from home or from a client site, was already well-ingrained before the COVID-19 crisis, Fuller said.
“It’s almost been, just convert where you work rather than adapt to a different style of work,” he said.
In the short term, clients across KPMG Law’s 80 jurisdictions and across a range of industries are all asking the same sorts of questions about the legal impacts of the crisis.
They want to know about employment law and dealing with their people—how to protect them and how to react to the latest government announcement about workers. Having staff work from home creates its own set of issues, such as what companies should do about cybersecurity and confidential data and privacy.
Contract issues are arising, including how to approve and sign a contract if there are no directors in the office, and force majeure or frustration. There are corporate governance issues such as how do governance and oversight bodies continue if they are all virtual, and how can directors discharge their duties if they can’t hold board meetings or annual general meetings.
Clients with mergers and acquisitions deals underway want to know about material adverse change clauses and the right of the counterparty to change or exit the deal.
“I don’t think we’ve seen too much slowing down there. Some deals aren’t going at the same pace, but we’ve seen very few deals either stop or get put on permanent hold, particularly in Europe,” said Fuller, who joined KPMG from King & Wood Mallesons in 2018 and became global head of legal services in August of last year.
Finally, there are the inevitable questions about restructuring.
Fuller is thinking about what clients will need in six or nine months’ time, whether it is to take advantage of a business opportunity or deal with the impact of the virus and the downturn on the business, be that through mergers and acquisitions or restructuring, or through regulation.
As for the impact on his firm’s billings, Fuller said he has observed from past experience that there is both work in the system and work reacting to a crisis. “That always provides a floor, whether you’re a lawyer or any form of adviser, because it’s the time when clients need support the most and there’s already existing momentum,” he said.
But Fuller said he doesn’t yet have a view on how the new financial year will begin.
Longer-term, he expects the crisis to change the way the law is practiced.
“I’ve been a great believer for a long time that the practice of law needs to change around digitization and automation and doing things as a combination of human capital and tech, and what I think will happen is that the disruption of the current situation is going to accelerate that change,” he said.
In particular, the crisis has brought the legal foundations of business, such as contracts and employment, to the fore.
“I think it’ll drive this eco-legal system of business and legal to being seen as more intertwined, and legal in a business context will come a lot more to the fore.”
Businesses and firms will better use technology to help them manage contracts and their exposures in a quick efficient way rather than having the old-fashioned lever arch files or using emails to file documents. Firms and companies need to consider what they have learned from this disruptive period and how they can strengthen their business going forward, he said.
Finally, Fuller said the COVID-19 pandemic will change the way lawyers in private practice work.
“I think there will be a big change for traditional law firms,” he said, noting that this would especially be the case at firms where lawyers had still been expected to turn up and be in the office, and where there was a lot of in-office face time.
“I think that working from home in this forced environment will change that,” he said.