The UK government’s decision to enforce lockdown in March due to the Covid-19 outbreak disrupted every industry, and law was no exception. Whilst some legal sectors have remained active, others such as criminal law screeched to a halt overnight.
The decision to proceed with “maximum caution” in attempts to ease lockdown means that, in the short term, lawyers must continue to work from home if they can and avoid public transport if at all possible.
Social distancing will remain in place for the foreseeable future. When we do eventually return to work in offices, we can expect measures such as queueing at 2 metre intervals to enter an elevator with limited passengers, segregated desks with plastic protective shields and the compulsory wearing of face masks in common areas. Client meetings will only take place if absolutely necessary and must be carefully orchestrated to avoid congestion. Communal areas such as shared kitchens, gyms and showers will likely remain closed, and there is even talk of booking time slots to use the bathroom.
So how will this affect lawyers and law firms, and what lessons can be drawn from this experience for the future?
Effects of Lockdown on Law Firms
Many large firms will be keen to make use of their expensive hub offices, but with the expected ongoing social distancing measures, the future of the workplace is uncertain. Law firms may well take this opportunity to look to reduce their cost bases, for example by reducing the size of the offices, promoting flexible work stations and consider reducing the range of legal services offered. Firms may choose to focus on the services which are more profitable for them.
The smaller firms with low cost bases which only offer specialised legal services, may discover that they can continue to provide the legal services remotely.
Criminal law firms will continue to struggle until the criminal courts are fully reopened, and will remain in difficulties whilst the determination of a 2 year backlog of trials for defendants on bail, is resolved.
Conveyancing firms will take some time to bounce back from the UK government’s recent decision to reopen the housing market.
Other sectors, such as dispute resolution, insolvency and employment law remain operational.
The civil courts have continued to function during lockdown, with hearings being conducted using telephone or video conferencing facilities.
Effects of Lockdown on Lawyers
Most lawyers have had to make quick adjustments to work from home. In terms of hardware and software, many firms like mine were quick to offer second screen monitors and equipment for home offices. Lawyers have rapidly learned to use Zoom and MS Teams.
Those lawyers who practice in sectors that remain active it is practically business as usual. For others, lockdown has been a unique opportunity to write blogs, conduct webinars and build up business development skills and online profiles.
What Lessons Can We Learn From Lockdown
In many ways, the lockdown working day for many lawyers reminds me of the way lawyers used to conduct litigation before we relied on emails. Litigation lawyers would begin their day by dictating letters, documents and attendance notes in response to overnight correspondence. During office hours most of our time was devoted to speaking with clients and Counsel by telephone or in meetings.
Usually we would stop work at 6pm after the post and DX had been dispatched and support staff had gone home.
The universal adoption of emails by lawyers and clients, and the advent of smart phones, changed the way we communicated with clients. We reduced telephone calls and sent emails instead, at all hours of the day, which would elicit a prompt response. Regular office hours, support staff, DX and post all became virtually redundant.
In lockdown, many lawyers have reverted to traditional office hours.
My days begin early. I deal with overnight emails, and then spend the majority of the day talking to clients over the telephone or attending Zoom and MS Teams meetings.
By 6pm I stop work to maintain a healthy work/life/home balance.
The future of working life is uncertain, but working during lockdown has shown us:
A. Almost all work can be conducted remotely, from board meetings, to client meetings, Court hearings and even the preparation of Court bundles for trial is possible.
B. Most items believed essential for an office are, in fact, not essential! Printers, fax machines, photocopiers, paper, stationery and even meeting rooms are no longer prerequisites for the job.
C. There is no longer a stigma attached to working from home. Lawyers no longer use outdated parlance such as “working remotely”. Everyone is free to admit that they are working from home. On video conference calls many people no longer feel the need to select virtual background images to disguise the surroundings of their home office. Even dress codes have relaxed; it is not uncommon for colleagues to replace white shirts with distressed t-shirts on video calls with clients or counsel.
D. You can regain a healthy work-life balance. Generally clients appreciate that you may need to take a break for your daily exercise, or stop work at 6pm to tend to your family.
Projecting forward, it is clear that law firms, together with the working life of a lawyer, have changed. My 5 top tips for legal services in the future are:
1. Cash flow is vital
Continue to review your cost base, cut or reduce fixed costs. Make arrangements to spread out lump sum payments over a few months, where possible, to ease financial pressures.
2. Negotiate flexible contract terms
Keep all fixed costs as lean and flexible as possible, from office space right down to mobile phone contracts.
3. Be a Futurist when Making Decisions
Consider a different focus on areas of law during an economic downturn, eg insolvency and employment law.
4. Structure your day carefully
Work during set times, and separate work from home to keep a healthy work/life balance.
5. Maintain personal contact
Speak to people rather than sending an email. You cannot better direct human interaction.