Lockdown diary part three: What might the future hold?
In March, my law firm, like many others, shut its doors and sent all employees home. This was happening in the background as we rapidly made changes to how we would deliver services to our clients during lockdown, whilst ensuring that the quality of our service remained high.
It is incredible to think that lockdown was announced nearly six months ago. Despite measures being lifted, my firm has not returned to the way things were. We have embraced many of the positives that lockdown has given us, and we will build on these.
Technology is clearly a major winner and the importance of a good case management system has been paramount for us. Lawyers are renowned for not being fond of change and, whilst I was supportive of the idea of transitioning to paperless working, I was absolutely one of these lawyers. I was not wholly reliant on paper, but the idea of running court proceedings without paper? Impossible.
Lockdown changed all of that. Rather than a gentle transition to paperless, the change was instant. Printing and paper became a hindrance very quickly as I, along with my team, converted to paperless working. There will be occasions where printing documents is still needed but, fundamentally, this has been a major shift in our business.
The cost savings will also be significant – notably, the reduced costs of postage, stationery, ink cartridges, and printing, amongst other things. The benefits to the environment are also worth acknowledging.
The second change is the way in which we communicate with clients and third parties, such as counsel. Prior to lockdown, virtual meetings were available; it was just that nobody particularly wanted to use them. It was nearly always the case that you would either meet face to face or speak on the phone.
Virtual meetings have been a success and are undoubtedly here to stay. They significantly reduce travel time, and in my experience are more focused and therefore shorter. There will still be a place for meetings in person and, as a firm serving the local community, I expect some clients will want that to continue and will value the face-to-face contact.
However, there are certainly going to be clients, those with children at home or full-time jobs for instance, who would prefer to jump on a Zoom call from the comfort of their home or office, instead of travelling to our office, no matter how short the journey. In addition, I have found that Zoom calls have not only replaced in person meetings, but also phone calls.
Court hearings were held virtually following lockdown, but with the reopening of courts, we will just have to ‘watch this space’ to see how far the courts embrace virtual hearings in the future. I have already shared my views that for certain hearings, such as a case management conference, the default position should be that the hearing be held virtually, unless one of the parties objects, in which case it will proceed in person. If the judge feels the objection is unreasonable, this could be addressed with a costs sanction.
With everyone forced to work from home, most office-based lawyers have experienced a radically different working environment.
We have already heard of large firms announcing the closure of selected office locations, with working from home now to be the norm. For smaller firms, the decision on how to operate may be more difficult than this. We have smaller teams of people and there are various competing needs, including supervision and training, which may be best delivered in an office environment rather than remotely.
Lockdown has proven to me that my firm can, if needed, operate remotely. This does not, however, appeal to everyone. For each of my team who felt they were more productive working from home, there was another who was pining for a return to the office and the structure it would bring. Each person has different needs, including supervision and training, and that is the key. Where possible, flexibility should be embraced, as that is what is likely to bring the best out of your people. At a personal level, I anticipate working a split week between the office and home, enjoying the benefits that both have to offer.
The time has arisen for firms to reflect on the lockdown period, the lessons learned, and the positives identified. Now is the time for us to identify what positives can be taken from our experiences during this lockdown and this pandemic and use them to enable our businesses to flourish.
My top five lockdown tips
What have I learned most from lockdown?
1. Communicate regularly: both as a management team and with your employees
2. Maintain an increased grip on your finances: it is easy to watch your cashflow closely when concerns are high. Don’t become complacent and take your eye off the ball as business picks up
3. Be kind, and cooperate: there was definitely an increased sense of togetherness at the beginning of lockdown, with opposing parties cooperating more and being more understanding. It would be nice if this could continue
4. Embrace change: and don’t be insistent on change being gradual
5. Welcome flexibility: whether in how you make services available to clients, or in how employees are able to deliver those services