Archie Millar considers how law firms and other businesses coped during the pandemic and the lessons that can be learnt
As we – apparently and hopefully – come out of covid-19, it would seem wise to analyse what happened over the time of the pandemic to see if there are lessons to be learned from how businesses coped or failed to cope.
I would suggest those who fail to learn the lessons of covid-19 will inevitably revert to their previous work patterns and will suffer greatly in so doing.
The need to adapt
When the first lockdown came along, we chose to close our office. We could have stayed open, but closed to demonstrate social responsibility. We implemented our disaster recovery plan which involved the staff going home and working from there.
Just to recap, we host our own cloud so we can access all current files and archives through the internet. We installed an app on our mobile phones which allowed calls to the office landline to be serviced and calls transferred as if internally. I visited the office daily to open the mail and scan it to the person dealing.
Obviously in the first lockdown we were not allowed to do estate agency insofar as that meant visiting houses. It worked well. We continued to trade successfully on almost normal levels. The work got done and many people commented that they did not perceive any change in our service levels.
The one point which we all felt in relation to working from home was the lack of interaction among work colleagues. Productivity was not adversely affected; clients remained happy. With an eye to mental health, as well as to ensure things were running smoothly, I met regularly with staff members on our daily allowed walks so we could discuss matters side by side if not face to face.
This meant me putting in over 20,000 steps a day, so had some other good side effects. About seven kilograms of them in fact. So, the disaster recovery plan worked and it took only about two and a half minutes to implement, as that is how long it takes me to walk home and switch on the computer.
During the second lockdown we operated a hybrid system. We did face-to-face appointments but followed the government guidelines. This also worked well and we found clients happy to comply with the guidelines.
As things improved, we moved to a more hybrid system where staff worked within the office when required, but could also work at home. Which also worked well, so we did do a spell of flexible working.
It worked, but home working requires trust on the part of the employer that their homeworker is actually working.
Advantages and disadvantages
From my own experience of homeworking, I would say I can see benefits. The peace and quiet to look at complicated matters or to push through a large workload quickly but there are also disadvantages. It was an isolating experience and there was a reduced ability to bounce ideas of colleagues. From a staff and welfare point of view it also has to be remembered that people do not just work for money, there are social aspects and we also need to be able to work as a team and to exchange information and thoughts.
There is a creative side to much of what we do and sharing is an important part of that. In general terms, I would be in support of a level of homeworking but it would have to be carefully managed. Solicitors do more than input data.
So how did other firms and institutions operate? Some firms worked from home but had no technology in place to assist them.
This involved solicitors taking bundles of files home so they could work on them. They would then dictate their work and return the files to the office where the typing would be done and a partner would turn up to sign mail. I had one transaction with a firm who introduced this plan, but I could not get a contract formed as the partners were also working from home so could not sign formal letters.
Some firms did not have the ability to deal with calls to their office landlines, so their solicitors were forced to use their own mobiles to make calls. In other firms, work continued as normal but behind closed doors.
There were doubtless many other ‘put togethers’, but there certainly seemed to be more problems than solutions. Surely in this day and age, with the wealth of technology affordably available to us, legal firms should have been able to do better than most did.
I would suggest the lessons are there to be learned and I would argue our client base is looking for a quality of service, at reasonable prices, which traditional systems simply cannot deliver. These lessons can be used to increase the efficiency and profitability of our businesses.
It also seems appropriate to consider how the institutions managed. We have to deal with them so we are affected by their performance. We need answers from them when we are dealing with estates, divorces, conveyancing and we need these answers quickly and efficiently. For some, the answer is they did not, and for others, they did not even try.
Registers of Scotland simply shut down their intake department. How can an organisation the size of Registers of Scotland not have a disaster recovery plan? How can it take them so many weeks before they came up with the solution of just email the applications? Are they not embarrassed at the solution after spending how much on trying to make ARTL work?
Scottish Water went home. I met with a farmer angry at receiving reminders for an unpaid invoice. When I called them to inquire, I was told his letter and cheque would be lying behind their office door as they had closed so their offices were unmanned. Many local authorities simply sent staff home.
At least some tried. I received an email from Aviva which began, “I am sorry to send you an email but I am working from home and do not have the facility to print a letter.”
Litigators tell me the Scottish Courts administration is coping very badly but see appearances by conference call as a very positive step.
I have received a letter from a pension fund stating they are sorry they cannot supply me with a CETV as they are all working from home and do not have the facility to produce such a thing.
The inability of institutions to deal with the pandemic has impacted on our work and service levels to an extent where clients are very sceptical when we try to explain the reason for the delays.
I think the message is clear, the pandemic has exposed a weakness of management and an absence of future planning in all levels of business. There is nothing the average firm of solicitors can do which will affect or assist the large institutions and government departments much as their weakness affect us but an awareness of their weaknesses and a determination to overcome the same problems within our own organisations is clear much needed.
Archie Millar is managing partner at MacRae Stephen & Co. macraestephen.co.uk
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