In the second of a special three-part series about running a small law firm during lockdown, Andrew King, solicitor and director at Lennons Solicitors, talks about his involvement in one of the country’s first virtual trials, and how lockdown has fostered a sense of togetherness across law firms.
As we entered lockdown, I was a matter of days away from a hearing on one of my commercial litigation cases. Trial was listed for three days in the Commercial Court at the start of April.
We had all planned for trial to take place in person as usual, but following the announcement of lockdown on 23 March, it was unclear whether trial would go ahead in person, if it could be accommodated remotely (and if so, how), or if it would go ahead at all.
On 27 March, HHJ Cockerill DBE directed that trial would proceed virtually using Skype for Business and we were informed that she would not, under any circumstances, be accepting any hardcopy documents.
So, on 6 April 2020, we went ahead with one of the country’s first virtual trials.
That there was so little time between lockdown being announced and trial commencing was, somewhat strangely, an advantage. Trial involved 10 lay parties, three firms of solicitors and four barristers. There was a real sense of being in it together, the solicitors in particular sharing the burden of urgently compiling and updating electronic bundles for filing. As a virtual trial was such a novelty, we all adjusted our expectations to recognise that this was the first time of working in this manner for everyone.
One of the great experiences of lockdown has been that sense of togetherness. There have been stories of some firms acting obstructively, but overall, my experience has been positive, with firms working together and there being less instances of point-scoring.
Following the trial, I put together a list of 30 practical tips for conducting virtual hearings which I published on Twitter. The reaction was incredible, and it was only then that it really sunk in how novel the experience had been. I quickly decided to share my experience more formally, authoring and publishing The Virtual Workspace: 50 Tips for Effective Video Conferencing. The book is available from Amazon as an eBook, paperback and, as of July 2020, as an audiobook from Audible. Endorsed by Susan Acland-Hood (CEO of HM Courts and Tribunal Services), Richard Susskind, the Secret Barrister and Gordon Exall, all profits from sales of the book go to NHS Charities Together.
The experience of the virtual trial had an immediate impact on how I, and those within my firm, have changed our ways of working.
Like most of you, we have embraced virtual meetings as a replacement for in-person meetings with clients. I confess to having seldom held a meeting by Zoom prior to lockdown. Not only have virtual meetings replaced all in-person meetings, they have also replaced many of my phone calls, providing an enhanced way in which to speak with clients.
Conferences with counsel, court hearings and mediations have all been conducted virtually. As restrictions ease and the government encourages people to go back to work, there will be a return to previous ways of working. Indeed, court hearings are already being held in person again. My view is that the key is to find the right balance. The benefits to attendance in person should outweigh the downside of travel time and the impacts on other commitments.
The other key change to our working practices is paperless working. There are plenty of firms who were operating paperless prior to lockdown, along with those which relied on paper files, and those which had their own variation of a hybrid. My firm was in the last camp, and I will own up to the fact that pre-lockdown, I was convinced that the only way to read certain documents was if I had the physical copy in front of me. I have now removed paper from my working life which, having been forced to, was far easier than I imagined it might have been. Printing out documents to send to another firm that is insisting on receiving hard copies is a rarity now.
I do not think I have put more than a handful of items into the DX since lockdown started. Has anyone? Our ways of working were forced to change overnight and looking forward, it is important that we embed these positive changes into our future working practices.
In the next and final article in this series, I discuss the impact that COVID-19 may have on the ways in which law firms operate in the future. Read Lockdown diary part one: What I've learned.