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Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Exercise in a box

Exercise in a box


Nicola Laver looks at what we might learn from the pandemic 

If ever a situation so starkly illustrated the truth that hindsight is a wonderful thing, it’s the pandemic.

It seems apt to quote William Blake in full at what is essentially a life and death crisis: “Hindsight is a wonderful thing but foresight is better, especially when it comes to saving life, or some pain!”

With the benefit of hindsight, lessons are learnt (though often too late) and blame is apportioned. While the parallels between Exercise Cygnus and the reality of covid-19 are frequently referenced in this public health crisis, there’s a further comparison law firms should consider. 

You’ll know that Exercise Cygnus refers to the simulation exercise carried out by NHS England in 2016, set seven weeks into a severe pandemic outbreak.

The findings (as yet unpublished) have reportedly been described by a government source as “too terrifying” to be published but are widely thought to show an NHS stretched beyond breaking point. Yet government has claimed to be one of the most prepared countries in the world for pandemics.

Exercise In A Box could be described as the cyber equivalent of Cygnus. It’s an online tool created a year ago by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) by which firms can simulate a cyber-attack and plan their responses. The aim (as Peter Wright explains on p44) is that decision makers can visualise being at the centre of an attack and how they would cope, identify the appropriate measures that should be taken and plan to prevent the worst from happening. 

Firms have already been warned by the regulator to be extra vigilant around cyber security, particularly with lawyers remote working and thus more exposed. The SRA has received reports of firms being targeted such as the firm where criminals tried to create a standing order for £4,000 a month from its client account. This should be the nudge, if it were needed, to register for Exercise In A Box and engage with it. 

Firms will not want to risk a cyber-attack – and find themselves looking back with hindsight and regret not taking steps to deal with exposed weaknesses. The reality is, if ever there were going to be weaknesses exposed – it’s probably now when staff are working remotely, using their home WiFi and digital devices and getting to grips with the likes of Zoom. 

The challenges of steering firms through this crisis are unarguably without parallel; and this month’s cover feature highlights how firm leaders are successfully embracing the task before them. But one might argue that should be a given.

So perhaps more admirable is the way the lawyers and staff themselves have coped. A common theme that’s emerged from the managing partners’ accounts of business in lockdown is how adaptable staff have proved. Good, regular communication and the inevitable technology are proving the key. 

Many firms have been left with little choice but to furlough some staff but they are not forgotten. One firm, for instance, invites them to Zoom catch-ups (with a strict rule against discussing work matters). Redundancies will become inevitable. In the meantime, some partners and high-earning lawyers, notably in the City and particularly in the US, are taking pay cuts as the financial impact really begins to bite. 

When some semblance of pre-pandemic normality begins to kick in and firm leaders ease their workforce back to the office (or not as the case may be), the sector will be looking very different. 

For now, remote working and video conferencing are the new norm. And while social distancing could be the reality for many months, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and so on continue to facilitate the social side of life as a remote lawyer – the modern way, if not perfect.