The doors of the majority of law firms have been shut; and staff – from senior partners down to the admin team – are working from home while the international fight against the global pandemic goes on.
Thanks to “the wizardry of modern technology”, in the words of Boris Johnson, the migration from working inhouse at the office to working - quite literally - inhouse has been relatively smooth for the most part. It shows how businesses and individuals can quickly adapt to a new working environment when they have to. And once normality resumes, all forward thinking firms will be considering whether this sets a precedent for the future of how they run their business operations.
Homeworking could become a key feature in a new legal workforce.
There is no denying that the earliest days of this situation has hit the entire economy and the UK workforce at speed. There were rumblings from as early as February that a UK lockdown could become inevitable; but that still left little time for law firms to prepare and implement the necessary policies and procedures to ensure a prompt yet smooth transition.
No law firm and no partner has ever been in this situation before and it is proving a steep learning curve. But firms are transitioning well. It may be helpful to highlight some of the key practical that both firms and individual solicitors should consider as they continue to adapt:
- Wellbeing: people should be top of the agenda. This is, after all, a health crisis. It is undoubtedly precipitating an economic crisis (which the government is dealing with) but people’s health and wellbeing must come first. Firms must ensure individual members of staff are able to talk openly with their supervisors/managers and admit when they are struggling. By the morning of day 10 of the lockdown, a number of lawyers had posted on Twitter that they were finding the isolation difficult to cope with. Look after your staff and stay connected. Remember: firms have a duty of care to protect the health and safety of its employees – and this includes their mental wellbeing.
- Comply with regulatory obligations: we might be on the equivalent of a war footing, but the Solicitors Regulation Authority has emphasised its expectation that firms and individual lawyers must still meet the high standards the public expects. However, it has conceded that it will take a “proportionate approach” to compliance and enforcement – though what that might mean in practice remains to be seen.
- Look after your clients: without clients you have no business, so do everything you can to avoid alienating them. Keep in touch with them; reassure them; ensure the lines of communication remain open for them as much as is reasonably practical. If you lose their trust during the lockdown period when they are continuing to rely on you providing a professional service and their legal issue is ongoing, you risk losing the client in the long term. Your reputation may also take a hit. However, you may find it challenging getting the balance between adjusting to a new way of working and managing client expectations. It would be wise to keep records of when client contact has taken place and the advice or reassurances given, in case you need to rely on this in future should a complaint materialise. If you have not done so already, consider including a standard ‘Covid-19 statement’ on your emails to keep clients and others informed on business developments. If clients know you may take 48 hours instead of your usual 24 hours to respond to an email, they will be deterred from pressurising you. Also, consider sending a regular update to clients rather than being reactive to clients’ queries and concerns. This could cover issues such as payments of invoice and disbursements, signing documents and options for client meetings.
- Communication is key: as you and your workforce bed down for an uncertain period of remote working, it is vital to maintain communication with your staff. If you are not already doing so, hold regular one-to-one remote meetings via Microsoft Teams or Zoom as well as electronic team meetings (but make sure you consider the cyber risks in doing so). When key business decisions are made, keep your people in the loop. Most business decisions have some impact on lawyers and other staff. Rather than compounding the uncertainties and difficulties on lawyers who may already be struggling to juggle work with family and caring responsibilities, tell them if a change is being made that might impact them.
- Technology: if you’re adjusting, changing or upgrading your firm’s tech, keep your team fully informed – and in a timely way. A change in tech can create practical problems and add unnecessary frustrations for your staff if their tech use is interrupted or temporarily paused without any warning. And if you are having to make changes to your tech, don’t be tempted to avoid the due diligence you would, in ‘normal times’ be expected to carry out when researching and selecting new tech solutions. Time might well be of the essence, but you should still ensure the supplier is, for instance, GDPR compliant and the cyber risks are evaluated. If you don’t, you could be in breach of your regulatory duties.
- Disability diversity: remember that your workforce and your client base are made up of unique individuals. Many will have some form of disability or impairment and you will not always know about it. Consider the combined impact of having a disability – and working in isolation. Then consider making it a firm policy that each client, and every individual within your workforce, is asked directly whether they have any specific needs, and if they need any adjustments to help them in their new workspace. And if they do, act on it where it is reasonable to do so – and keep open those lines of communication.
All firms and solicitors should keep up-to-date with the latest guidance for the profession. The Law Society’s Covid-19 guidance is available here.