Lawyers in lockdown
How are firm leaders navigating the covid-19 storm? Nicola Laver reports
Pity the law firm leaders of Spring 2020, blindsided by the pandemic-induced lockdown. They may as well have been told to launch their prized yacht off a cliff edge into a stormy sea, with enough precision to land it upright onto choppy waters, keep it afloat during a week-long storm while preserving the lives of its occupants.
“It has been a real voyage of discovery”, says Clive Thomas, managing partner at Watkins & Gunn in South Wales. “I feel as though we have advanced three years in three weeks”, he explains.
“The key has been to have a can-do attitude to come up with workarounds to deal with potential barriers to home working and all of the other challenges presented by the lockdown.” The whole team has, he says, been really positive and responsive.
As Martin Hopkins at Birkett Long so succinctly puts it: “There is no manual for this, and there is no previous experience to refer back to and learn from.”
He found the speed of change one of the biggest challenges in navigating the firm’s response to the lockdown.
“Particularly at the start”, he comments, “this was difficult to keep up with at times. I was amazed how quickly we, as a team, were able to deal with those changes, take decisions and then implement them. It has shown us what can be done.”
Then there’s the impact of the restrictions. Hopkins says: “Our firm and its people, like many in our industry, have been wedded to its physical offices and to its paper. To try to break that habit with so little warning and with so little opportunity to make exceptions, has been a real challenge.” The uncertainty and its impact on the business and individuals is “completely new”, he adds.
Collateral damage Covid-19 is about people and this is a public health crisis, but alongside the human toll businesses and the economy will be collateral damage. Yet, a common theme in the accounts of firm leaders who have featured in our interviews over the past 12 months is of people pulling together and pushing through.
It’s no surprise that tech is proving the great enabler to weather the storm (how else can the workforce work from home?). Everyone is on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, enabling team and management meetings, client meetings, supervision of junior lawyers, wellbeing check-ups, virtual coffee breaks – even parent and child morning sessions.
I wonder if Alison Lobb, managing partner at Morecrofts, possessed a sixth sense that something big was coming. She says: “I will forever be grateful that we underwent a massive upgrade of our entire infrastructure in January.” This enabled nearly everyone at the Liverpool firm to work from home, including receptionists who have access to the console “as if they were seated in the office”, she comments.
The newest law firm business models were already quick off the starting block, like dispersed firm Nexa Law. Eliot Hibbert manages the firm and says it was at an advantage being already geared up to operate remotely with a strong case-management system, cloud storage, IT support and so on.
“We also have a small management team and can make decisions quickly”, he adds. “The joy of not being part of a large, flat partnership structure anymore.”
Similarly Michael Burne, chief executive at Carbon Law Partners says its firm model is largely cushioned in the pandemic: “As a platform law company our firm did not need to enact a business continuity plan – indeed there’s no need for the word ‘continuity’ as this is our business plan.”
Its back office is completely outsourced to a range of providers. Nor did the firm require a cultural shift. Burne comments: “I think the tech and the culture are the two key parts of the response to the lockdown and we feel fortunate that we are in the position we are.” Speed and planning For the traditional firm, responsiveness and careful planning has been vital.
Chris Hart, chief executive at Wollens, highlights that key positives for the firm have been around planning, pulling together and communication. “Managing a business through this crisis has all been about speed of response. Through the couple of weeks before the lockdown announcement we were already having daily planning meetings.”
That included daily contact with staff to keep them updated, directing highly vulnerable people to work from home during the week before the government lockdown and trying to source any laptop going. “At the end of this we’ll have more laptops than we know what to do with”, muses Hart.
It’s been fairly trouble-free so far for Manchester firm Pannone Corporate, reports senior partner Paul Jonson. He says the key to navigating a quick, effective response to the crisis was “clear communication” delivered by management and in team meetings by team leaders with a step-by-step practical plan.
“Everyone in the firm was fantastic in adapting”, he says. “There was a huge collegiate effort to make it work. Similarly, clients have been responsive and adaptive. We act for a wide range of commercial clients and some of them have changed production from their usual products to providing PPE for NHS or sanitisers, for example.”
At Birkett Long, lawyers, staff and clients alike have been “equally responsive and quick to adapt”, says Hopkins. “Changes which we would usually have timetabled over a period of months have been successfully implemented in a matter of days. To quote our IT director, we effectively turned the firm inside out in a week, from being set up to work from our offices to being set up to work remotely.”
He says he’s “lucky to have a team around me who have those skills to deal with what has been thrown at them and have the confidence and trust in each other to be honest and to challenge”. Steep learning curve For everyone, there’s an element of learning to be done. For instance, not all lawyers were previously used to remote conferences and hearings or using other cutting-edge tech.
Lobb points out that, for example, the family team at Morecrofts wasn’t even used to having telephone conferences before but are adapting to remote hearings in their various forms “with differing levels of success depending on the court and the parties involved”.
She says further tech is being tapped into which may well not have been before lockdown, such as apps to help with scanning and other functions.
Managing partners report that most clients are generally understanding and, as Lobb says, “grateful that we are still working for them”. But there are always exceptions. She adds: “We’ve had issues with a minority who are unhappy that they cannot meet face-to-face, cannot attend our offices, or we will not go out to their homes.
“While we have told clients that it might take longer than usual to respond to them, a small number have been very unhappy at not getting an instant response, or their case being delayed, one even to the point of complaining. A small number of clients have also tried to use this as an opportunity not to pay bills.”
Carbon Law has turned its focus to try to help clients. “In particular”, says Burne, “our live employment webinars with Q&As have been very popular with clients and prospective clients. So, one of our employment partners has been brushing up his live broadcasting skills.”
The key to meeting the challenges of keeping in touch with lawyers and clients remotely is video conferencing. Burne explains: “We have daily calls with our central team – replacing the metaphorical watercooler. In addition, regular weekly ‘coffee mornings’ across the central team and the partners together in group sizes of about five so you can have a meaningful chat for 30 minutes with good video call disciplines.”
But the biggest challenge – “such a first world problem”, adds Burne – is which video app does the client/contact/supplier want to use. Continuing challenges Lobb is ready to speak of the mental toll of recent weeks: “I have found the pace of adaptation and decision-making as the situation changed on a daily basis, the need to come up with quick solutions to issues I’ve never needed to even think about before, and the simply not knowing what would come next resulting in an inability to plan, were at the outset, exceptionally draining.”
Thankfully, she’s found staff adaptable. “We all know lawyers are resistant to dealing with change, and I had worried that would be the worst part of the problem, but actually this is proving the point that people will change when they are forced to.”
A particular challenge for Nexa Law, a dispersed firm, has been onboarding new lawyers which is normally done face-to-face. “We have had to think on our feet a little”, Hibbert says. “We have set up remote onboarding which has its own challenges, but we have managed to get this down to a pretty fine art.”
However, when some sort of normality returns, so will face-to-face onboarding “as it gives us a great opportunity to get to know our lawyers better”. POST-PANDEMIC No one is under any illusion that it’s going to be ‘business as normal’ for a very long time (if ever). Firms will be operating in a new norm which will unarguably be dictated by the lessons learnt through 2020 and beyond. Planning for the future will not be easy.
Hopkins says: “In the long term, at best, we have to make an educated guess on the impact on the economy and, therefore, the impact on our business.”
Lobb hopes the experience “will help us streamline some of our practices and make us more agile” but concedes that all are concerned about their viability as businesses and “we can’t get away from that”, she says.
Many firms will share her worry, but the reality is, some firms will weather the storm better than others for myriad reasons such as their IT infrastructure, different practice areas, business model and leadership approach. Firms will also be reviewing their business continuity plans (BCP) with the benefit of hindsight.
As Thomas concedes: “I think like most firms I would have read the business interruption clause in my office insurance policy more closely. I would also have perfected the ability for clients to sign and return documents remotely without having to download any software.”
But lessons are quickly learnt. The firm has now achieved this and implemented an effective solution, “but it was a problem we could have foreseen”, adds Thomas. He adds: “I think that the way in which we are now working will bring about a permanent change – this new more flexible working is here to stay – and this is very positive in terms of resilience for the future and business continuity planning.”
Some firms are positively upbeat. At Pannone Corporate, Jonson says: “Instructions are still coming in, some parts of the firm are still very busy so there hasn’t been any change yet for those teams.” And the firm’s BCP “was only recently reviewed and tested so we were quite lucky”, he comments.
At Wollens, Hart says there’s been a real focus on future planning over the next 12 months in terms of cashflow and financial forecasting. “This”, he says, “has been reflected in the staff all pulling together, with an understanding that those being furloughed are also ‘doing their bit’ in terms of helping the firm.”
However, he observes that there “was a quick realisation that while working from home sounds great, people can quickly feel isolated”.
“While there’s been talk of how much easier it will be to work remotely in the future, this crisis has also told me that actually the importance of being together mustn’t be underestimated, and we must value human contact and collaboration in good space. That’s a relief as we’re nearing completion on our new 14,000 sq ft Torquay office.”
The firm is currently planning around how a socially distanced workforce could look in the coming months, particularly in terms of risk assessment planning around meetings, visitors and reception areas.
We know an economic fallout is inevitable. But as Hibbert points out, although there will be an inevitable slowdown in instructions and turnover “it is important to remember the world has not stopped”, with some areas of law extremely busy.
“Generally lawyers do better when their clients, both businesses and people, are doing well so recessions and economic shocks are not welcome for us”, he adds. Watkins & Gunn has furloughed about a third of the staff (all on full pay). Thomas comments: “Many of those furloughed are the lower earners and will be anxious about losing their jobs, so need to be handled with great empathy. We firmly believe that how you treat staff now will remain long in their memory (good or bad).
“We asked our furloughed staff to organise a quiz for the firm via Zoom and it was great to keep them involved and for everyone to see each other, if only virtually.” Modern tech has taken the edge off social isolation and opened up a new world. Those of us on Twitter, for example, are enjoying (or tolerating) shared pictures of spring gardens, pets, cooking, home-schooling disasters and family fun.
We share in the frustrations caused by covid-19 and we’re feeling the humanity of others. We’ve cried with those who cry and mourned with those who mourn – and we’ve laughed.
“Getting to grips with Zoom the first time was interesting but happily no one was doing anything they shouldn’t while on camera”, says Jonson. His litigation team ran a ‘guess whose desk this is’ where they all sent in photos of their workspace and had to guess whose was whose. “Some interesting responses”, muses Jonson.
Over at Wollens, there have been plenty of drinks parties and catch-ups with departments, in or out of work hours, “with a strict no work discussion rule for the teams with furloughed staff”, says Hart.
Hibbert says: “The one thing that has made me smile of late is how some lawyers are trying to convince themselves that going to the office is a form of essential travel – even that some are ‘key workers’!”
“We have all had to get used to life as lockdown lawyers”, Thomas observes. “The bonus of no commute, balanced against the lack of face-to-face contact with your clients and colleagues; the advent of Zoom… which has meant that I am having more meetings than before the lockdown; people judging you on what they can see behind you in your house when you’re on online meetings.”
Burne says we’ve all experienced humour, tragedy and financial head-scratching as a result of the virus. “One of my teenage children said, ‘You know what Dad, I think we’ll all be better for this’. We then had a longish (by teenage standards) chat about how and why. Fascinating to get perspective and context outside of the profession – a perspective that included hopeful optimism.
“Life will be different and if you are fortunate not to face the human tragedy of the virus right now, you’ll have the chance to deal with the ripples that extend ever outwards in every area of our lives for a generation.”
There are silver linings behind the covid-19 clouds. As Hopkins observes: “What I have also seen in our firm and in our wider communities is a sense of togetherness and a consideration for others which, if retained, will prove to be a real catalyst for positive change.”
Nicola Laver is editor of Solicitors Journal and non-practising solicitor