2 min read January 2022 — The Jacksonville area legal market is seeing a shift in demand toward risk management. Technology is also taking on a greater role in the industry, from the back office to the courtroom. Sara Holladay, Jacksonville office managing partner at law firm McGuireWoods, spoke with Invest: about these topics and shared her expert insights on the future of the area’s legal landscape.
What were the firm’s highlights over the last 18 months?
Our firm has been on the forefront of many of the most pressing issues facing our clients in numerous industries, from data privacy and security governance and litigation, to challenges in employment and other corporate governance matters in a post-COVID world. Despite COVID, we were also able to assist numerous clients in strategic mergers and acquisitions. As a result of the overall firm’s hard work and commitment to client service, McGuireWoods was one of only six law firms to earn the “powerhouse rating” for general commercial litigation from BTI in its “BTI Litigation Outlook 2022: Post Pandemic and Beyond” report. McGuireWoods was also rated a “standout” for intellectual property and employment litigation, and a “leader” for class action, product liability, complex employment and complex commercial litigation.
It has also been encouraging to see how the lawyers and staff within McGuireWoods have really taken on social justice issues. We have held internal town hall discussions on race and inclusion broadcast live to the entire firm. We launched a national webcast series called “Leaders in Color” featuring panel discussions with corporate counsel and legal aid lawyers on racial justice and how law firms and companies can work together to effect change. In addition, numerous attorneys and staff stepped up during the pandemic to offer pro bono legal services to those in need.
During the pandemic, we were also fortunate to have a strong technology group that assisted us in transitioning to almost completely virtual operations. It really was seamless; we were able to leverage various technologies and continue to collaborate with clients and colleagues.This enabled us to stay connected, collaborate with clients and colleagues, and continue to deliver excellent service to our clients.
How has technology pushed the legal industry toward digital transformation?
It has been interesting to see how various aspects of the legal industry adapt technology at different speeds. McGuireWoods has always had working groups dedicated to identifying and determining how to leverage the various technologies in the market and, if the right tool is not available, developing the needed technology in house. Certain technologies have been fairly prevalent over the last decade or so, including electronic court filings, document management systems, time and billing record keeping. But, the leaps these technologies have taken in even the last couple of years have improved the efficiency of the management and practice of law significantly. By way of example, as document and data discovery have become more intensive in both litigation and corporate due diligence, new technology has emerged to help manage the massive amounts of data and information generated in today’s business climate. These tools have definitely changed the way we practice law.
One positive thing the pandemic has done is to push the legal industry more into the digital age. The biggest change has been with technology in litigation and especially with the courts. With the pandemic, we had to transition to all-virtual proceedings in many jurisdictions. While we experienced growing pains at first, improved technology platforms and software have allowed parties to present complex hearings and even trials effectively via remote means, which was not even a consideration before the pandemic. The pandemic also caused a shift to more remote depositions and mediations. If done properly and with appropriate advance planning, remote proceedings can run as efficiently (or in some cases more efficiently) virtually. There is also some cost savings to clients for some virtual proceedings. It will be interesting to see how much of what we have done virtually over the last 18 months stays virtual or goes back to in-person proceedings. There is certainly a benefit to at least a hybrid virtual and in-person practice going forward.
What shifts in demand did you experience for the services you provide?
Over the last 18 months, we have seen significant needs for services related to data privacy and security, general risk and corporate governance, and employment matters, especially with clients moving to remote work. Throughout the pandemic, we have had working groups within the firm focused on all aspects of COVID related laws, regulations, and administrative orders, so that we can provide advice and support to our clients across multiple industries as things are developing.
During the last year, there were also several laws that have either been proposed (and could be taken up again in upcoming legislative sessions) or enacted across the country, that have had a significant impact on several of our clients’ businesses. This has been especially true as to consumer protection and online data privacy laws. We have seen an uptick in class actions related to all aspects of consumer protection across many industries.
There has also been an increased demand for our corporate real estate attorneys locally, especially amid the revamping of Downtown Jacksonville. A lot of companies have started seeing what we Jacksonville natives always knew – this is a great city for growth and business opportunities. We are seeing a lot more businesses expand or even relocate to Jacksonville.
What makes Jacksonville a great location for your firm?
A lot of our clients are located in Jacksonville. The Jacksonville office was started because one of our clients relocated here from Virginia. From a strategic viewpoint, one of the great things Jacksonville provides is that we are able to cover the entire state – from the Panhandle down to Miami and the Keys – as there are several good transportation options from Jacksonville.
What advice do you have for the next generation of lawyers?
To me, what makes a really good lawyer is someone who has not only the legal “smarts” but also a healthy dose of common sense, knowledge of the client’s business, and ability to look outside the box for a solution. Oftentimes, the best advice we can give a client is to not just provide the legal answer to a question, but a practical solution to a client’s problem. Knowing your client’s business is key to a lawyer’s ability to provide those practical solutions and answers.
Additionally, in my opinion, some of the best lawyers (who have the common sense I mentioned above), are lawyers who understand all the positions within a firm or a client’s law department, and understand how to effectively and efficiently leverage those resources in providing legal services. I started as a document clerk at McGuireWoods, then came back as a summer associate, then an associate, and now I’m a partner. The ability to have that background and understand how all of the various positions can contribute to the practice of law and client service overall is incomparable. My advice to someone in college, or between college and law school, is to go out and see if you can find an internship or see if you can find a lower-level position like a document clerk, case assistant or entry-level paralegal at a firm or business to gain that experience. Acquiring those skills makes you a better, more efficient lawyer because then you know how to better delegate and how to better utilize the resources that are there for you.
What are your top priorities for the firm?
My key priorities for the Jacksonville office are: continued excellence in client service, growth, and community involvement. My top priority is to grow the Jacksonville office. With that comes a concerted effort to be back in the community, not only by continuing to provide excellent legal work but making sure we’re connected to the community, knowing what’s going on, being out there and being visible and giving back.
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