Under pressure: how the pandemic has impacted family lawyers
Rita Gupta, director of Leiper Gupta Family Lawyers and accredited family law member, discusses how she, and her firm, has adapted to pandemic pressures.
As we pass the 10-month mark for the UK’s coronavirus pandemic, the strain is showing in all areas of our legal profession.
Most law firms have carried on working throughout the pandemic, and many are dealing with a vast increase in caseload. As family lawyers, we have had to adjust to changes in record time, and adapt to the changes within our practice area.
My own practice has switched to 100% remote working, with all the technological and security implications, as well as addressing the capacity issues.
Personally, I’m proud of how our traditionally conservative legal profession has embraced remote working, and the associated need for flexible working hours. Need has accelerated some much-needed changes within the professional, which have been embraced quickly.
But it has been tough – and will continue to be so for a whole variety of reasons. Here are just a few of the challenges we face as family lawyers, business owners, and individuals.
The speed and bandwidth you can achieve in your suburban or rural home may be radically different from your central city office space.
With slower connections, you are going to struggle with the core needs of remote family law: client video calls and remote court hearings.
Home schooling and partners working from home will further erode your capacity. From my own experience, if you can afford just one tech upgrade for your remote working, make it your broadband. It really is crucial.
The prime minister has announced that schools will not reopen until Monday 8 March at the earliest. That’s another six weeks of juggling home schooling, working from home, and running a home.
Single parents are particularly affected by the time demands of home schooling when going through separation and divorce.
Trying to find sufficient hours in the day for home schooling, in-depth discussions with their family lawyer, and attending remote hearings is highly stressful. And that stress inevitably passes across to their legal team, who in turn have to juggle their working day to accommodate.
The flexibility in court opening and closing times has helped with this a little. However, flexibility isn’t the same as availability. There is an expectation of family lawyers that we are ‘robots’, but we are facing the same challenges as our clients too.
Remote court hearings
For any parent, a remote hearing at home when you have children is really difficult and challenging.
Everyone involved needs space and time to concentrate without distractions or interruptions on a highly emotive and complex area of law, and that includes the family lawyers. Topped with the issue of confidentiality and court formality, this is a real area of difficulty for some lawyers.
With hearings lasting anything from 30 minutes to several hours, and with the need to switch in and out of conference, ‘Zoom fatigue’ is also a key issue.
Remote court hearings also rely on stable, effective connections with clear audio and video.
I had a remote hearing almost totally ruined by the opposing barrister’s internet issues. The client and I had sufficient speed and bandwidth, but the barrister’s children were busy gaming (!)
With the resulting loss of bandwidth, we lost half of our time at the hearing, and had to switch to telephone to complete it.
Our client was not impressed, nor was the judge, and the stress levels we all experienced were far higher than necessary. I also felt that the client lost out as a result of the chaos that inevitably ensued. It wasn’t a great reflection of the justice system either.
Face to face hearings
A return to face-to-face hearings has been encouraged by the government, alongside remote hearings.
Many family lawyers (and their clients) have serious concerns about having to attend court, at least until they have been vaccinated. There have been many positive COVID cases in recent weeks directly resulting from the court system.
A return to face-to-face hearings places a lot of pressure on lawyers as individuals, who may have vulnerable family members. The fewer people that need to attend court in person, the better for those who have to, such as our dedicated colleagues in criminal law.
Out of hours working
Lawyers have always worked beyond standard office hours. However, our remote world has made client’s demands for response times often unreasonable.
As family lawyers working intensely in the midst of a global pandemic, we have to make tough choices when it comes to prioritising cases. This can lead to clients venting their frustration on their lawyers.
Equally, as working parents ourselves, many of us have to log back on after dinner when the kids are in bed and work until the early hours. Long-term, this working pattern can impact the health and wellbeing of the family lawyer, and our ability to best serve our clients.
In his report The Family Court and COVID 19: The Road Ahead 2021, Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division, recognised this shift in working patterns was potentially detrimental to lawyers’ health and well-being:
“The degree to which work, including court hearings and the transmission of emails, now takes place without any regard to the confines of a normal working day has become a matter of very significant concern in the context of our individual and collective well-being.”
As a busy family law practice, we found this message reassuring, acknowledging the need to reduce the stress of being constantly “on call”. We all have to remember that as family lawyers we are people too, with families and commitments.
Compassion in the time of coronavirus
Ours is a caring discipline of law, guiding clients through major upheavals in their family and personal lives. This can take its toll on our mental health and compassion resilience.
So, I strongly believe that we deserve compassion in return from our fellow professionals, in terms of expected response times and workload.
In my own practice, I had to stop mid-way through court preparation to attend a relative’s online funeral.
Sadly, I have had two family deaths as a result of the pandemic. Even whilst explaining this to the solicitor on the other side, it received no acknowledgment and I was further pressured to respond.
In this case, a little compassion from a fellow legal professional would have gone a long way. We may be on opposite sides in the courtroom, but we are all human.
Thankfully, many of my fellow colleagues have not behaved in this way. Candid conversations about timeframes have been had, and constructive conversations on the phone.
Under less pressure in 2021
The really good news is that as we adopt better ways of working, we have seen our stress levels fall. I believe this comes from a greater resilience to almost constant change, and confidence in adjusting our working practices to meet shifting requirements.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
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