A new normal

As lockdown restrictions ease and we gradually return to a new normal, we were keen to see how members of the profession are navigating this new phase of the pandemic. We spoke with members of our four divisions to see how they are coping and moving forward, how their work has been impacted, both positively and negatively, and what they think the future will look like.

Video conference call from home

Michael Situ

Solicitor Advocate at Lincolns Solicitors and member of our Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division Committee

"There is no doubt that COVID has had a huge impact on everyone in the UK and around the world. The legal profession has not been and will not be immune to these changes.

I am a solicitor specialising in criminal law. Prior to the lockdown I spent my time between representing suspects at police station interviews, court hearings and attending prison visits.

Like many firms, we shut our office doors in March, furloughing some staff whilst those that could work from home did so.

We have had to change the way we provide legal services since the lockdown, be it the additional measures put in place to improve safety or the need to review the financial viability of continuing operation.

The major positive aspect has been the significant shift to remote working. At the height of the lockdown in April, virtually all my work was conducted remotely. I insisted on conducting police station interviews remotely even when police officers were reluctant to do so.

I also represented clients at court hearings where remote hearings were put in place. These were options that were simply not made available to practitioners pre-lockdown, despite requests.

By the beginning of June, remote attendances had become well accepted, mainly thanks to senior practitioners who spent a significant effort making the case for it. Going forward, it is clear that there will be greater use of remote hearings even after the justice system settle into a new normality.

This should be welcomed as it can allow for greater participation and involvement within the criminal justice system. The challenge for practitioners going forward would be to ensure clients are not disadvantaged in respect of the overall level of representation provided.

Other positives have included reduced travel time and costs and greater work flexibility.

As a legal aid solicitor, I have often spent too much of my time thinking about the financial implications of taking on a case due to the level of legal aid cuts over the last decade.

I fear the lockdown and the additional backlog created will give the Ministry of Justice the justification to make a dire funding situation even worse.

We know that there has been push for the running of courts on evenings and weekends without any corresponding funding increase in fees to compensate for this.

In addition, we have seen a huge reduction in work from arrests at police stations to substantive hearings heard in court during the lockdown. This has resulted in a corresponding reduction in income to firms which I’m sure will have ripple effects into 2021.

Another negative is the added safety measures costs.

In the meantime, we will continue to make the case to HMCTS, the Legal Aid Agency and the Ministry of Justice for a properly funded legal aid system that recognises the quality of service provided by criminal law practitioners."

Amandeep Khasriya

Senior associate at Moore Barlow and member of our Women Lawyers Division Committee

"The beginning of lockdown and the early Tiger King era of quarantine seems like a lifetime ago. After the initial shock to the system and navigating uncharted home-schooling territory, four months on I find myself comfortably adjusting to life working from home and I am not sure I want to go back to working life pre-COVID.

Working from home used to be for the minority but the pandemic has catapulted law firms ten years or so into the future – testing their innovation and technology in this mass social experiment which I’m glad to say has been a huge success for the legal profession.

The reality is, under normal circumstances, transformative and cultural widespread change such as this would have taken the legal profession years to achieve.

Yes working at home during COVID-19 has its challenges and we all feel the platform and technology overload that comes with virtual meetings. But, very few of us are ready to trade in our new found flexible working lifestyle, which many have long campaigned for, with the daily commute and rush back into the office.

And aren’t we finally levelling the playing field by removing the issue of presenteeism? With both genders in equal numbers embracing remote and agile working, flexible working is finally not treated as a women-only issue.

There has also been renewed focus on staff wellbeing. For example, my firm Moore Barlow have been offering virtual yoga, pilates and mindfulness sessions since the start of lockdown on a weekly basis.

Like most parents, one of the toughest challenges for me was working from home alongside my young child. There were also days where there wasn’t enough separation between work and home and on some days I found it hard to switch off once work was finished for the day.

But there are plenty of positives too, especially for creative workforces, including flexibility, fewer meetings, less travel, and greater autonomy.

As a member of the Law Society’s Women Lawyers Division, I wanted to ensure we were researching and creating relevant content to support our members.

We have done this by recording podcasts with expert guests on relevant, pressing issues. What became absolutely clear during the podcast interviews was the importance of maintaining focus on diversity and inclusion in these challenging times.

The need to understand gender experiences and how women in law and diverse groups are impacted differently during COVID-19 is as important as ever.

Remote working is not just for lockdown and the pandemic is changing the way leaders interact with their workforce. Working from home has great benefits and could be an even more positive experience when things return to normal, without the pressures of COVID-19 or caring responsibilities.

There is still an inevitable reluctance from some traditional lawyers in redefining work as something you do and not a place you go.

If we want a sustainable profession, we need to ensure that the positive and wider impact of these changes last and we redefine the way we work, to enable law firms to emerge stronger."

Demi Rixon

IT training consultant at iTrain Legal and member of our Lawyers with Disabilities Division Committee

"I have a rare condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, an invisible genetic connective tissue disorder. Lockdown has enabled me to reflect on my experiences of working full time as a paralegal prior to COVID-19.

Whilst working my disability was rarely understood by my employers and I encountered a lack of support from them.

Their intentions in hiring me were positive, however, supporting me entering and during my employment as a disabled person was difficult.

One major difficulty I encountered was accessing the appropriate reasonable adjustments (RAs). As a new graduate, unaware of what RAs I required and who to approach, I trusted the firms would help me navigate Access to Work and would know how to support me.

Regrettably, this was not the case.

At the time, I believed RAs were only physical adjustments that could be made to an office space. I now realise that remote and flexible working are also RAs that I could have requested.

However, before COVID-19 this adjustment was rarely seen and was not offered as an option. This was also commonly seen in the findings of the Legally Disabled Research Report 2020.

Without the opportunity to work remotely or flexibly, my condition worsened and I suffered increased pain and fatigue. That lack of support led me to believe that I could not be a lawyer. Because of my disability, the lack of RAs disabled me.

Post-COVID-19, remote and flexible working have become the ‘new normal’. The use of different technologies and changes in thinking about the new ways lawyers can work has radically changed the profession.

It wasn’t easy to begin with, but now organisations are settling into the new remote working norm, opening up the possibility of continuing to work this way in future.

This is a life-changing and much needed shift for disabled legal professionals.

Remote and new adaptive ways of working will enable more disabled professionals to enter and succeed in the profession. Anxiety in requesting remote working as a RA will ease as people will not feel they are different or being difficult.

However, COVID-19 life brings its own challenges – it is important for employers to remember that some of their disabled employees may have taken further precautions and/or shielded during lockdown.

Therefore, it may take time for them to adjust back into a new routine. Many routine hospital appointments and treatments have either been cancelled or delayed, having an impact on people’s conditions.

Employers must be mindful and understand there may be added stress for disabled employees as they will be organising their disability and care alongside working.

COVID-19 has made it necessary for organisations to think differently. I hope that the profession will continue to do so as it will encourage greater equality and diversity within the profession.

There is still a long way to go to make the profession truly accessible for disabled lawyers. However, this is a step in the right direction, and I hope that in future legal professionals will no longer believe you cannot be a lawyer and be disabled. Disabled people with the right tools and support will flourish."

Rachel Reese

Director of Global Butterflies and vice-chair of our LGBT+ Lawyers Division Committee

"When the outbreak started, Global Butterflies had a full order book and the future looked very bright. Within a week of the lockdown, we lost all of our face-to-face workshop bookings. We were like a 'rabbit in the headlights' and we considered closing for the duration.

We are a very social company and socialise with our clients a great deal. We absolutely miss this aspect of normal life – just having fun with clients. Zoom is fine but it does not substitute a glass of wine with a client face-to-face.

The big positive of the lockdown was that we designed all of our training to be delivered online, meaning we can deliver training more often (no trains to London and beyond), and in more countries. 

We probably would not have gone online had lockdown not happened but, now we are, we’re really glad that we did. Unexpectedly, but also positively, clients have also reached out to ask us to design online courses for them.

The new prospects and increase in interaction, like clients checking in on us, has been great.

Our office is at the end of our garden, and we actually now spend more time in it than before as we deliver all the training from this location. I love walking to the end of the garden to work.

Do I feel apprehensive about returning to client offices to deliver workshops? No, but I think this will happen less often now, at least in the short term.

We have seen many changes within the legal profession specifically. Firstly, people who were opposed to working at home are now becoming aware of the better work life balance and improved quality of life. Secondly, organisations that were suspicious of their employees working at home have now realised that the work still gets done.

Many law firms are now looking at their large, expensive buildings and are wondering whether there is a better way to run their businesses which includes if holding on to such expensive real estate is such a great idea.

We also saw a lot more kindness between the law firms, sharing of practical ideas to keep doing business under lockdown – for example larger firms helping smaller ones. It's wonderful to see.

I wish lockdown had not needed to happen as I personally had to delay our wedding for a year (fingers crossed it will happen in 2021!), but the silver lining has been kindness in the profession, a positive change in business methods for us, and it is better for our planet."

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