Suddenly, every solicitor has to be an agile worker. What has it meant for teamwork, client work, and, crucially, individuals’ wellbeing? The Journal has been collecting experiences, and advice

“Remote working doesn’t need to feel remote.”

These words from Jennifer Young, chairman of Ledingham Chalmers, sum up the experience of many legal firms forced to make the quantum leap from flexible working for some, to continuous confinement for all, due to COVID-19. Most have found they could adapt surprisingly quickly.

“When we saw what happened in Italy, we quickly set ourselves up on Microsoft Teams,” says Simon Allison, employment partner at Blackadders. “It’s a video facility which allows multiple users to speak, listen and share screens, and to see each other at the same time. This is excellent and, even though we’re in different cities, it made us all still feel connected.” With it, they keep up what were previously regular group phone calls.

Jones Whyte, a young and innovative firm, already operated unlimited remote working opportunities for its lawyers and paralegals. For video calling it too makes use of Teams, along with Zoom (an app quickly adopted by several firms), FaceTime and Skype, to suit the circumstance or the client. Timetastic is used to track staff leave, location and sickness; e-sign facilities negate the need for physical presence and e-signature where possible; and Amiqus provides remote ID, AML and compliance checks.

Founder Greg Whyte boils the subject down to essentials that recognise the trust involved: “Having enabled complete remote working for almost two years, we have developed two simple rules for those doing so. These are:

  • Your remote days should be as productive as your in-office days.
  • Don’t leave a team-mate in the lurch.

“Simple as that.”

Longer established practices have not been far behind. Nick Scott, Brodies’ managing partner, confirms that with the firm having adopted agile working for some time, it was able to respond quickly when the situation escalated. “That being said, it is a new experience to have around 700 colleagues operating online for the entire working day, and I’m pleased with the resilience shown as well as the sense of community that has been created among our people.”

On the in-house front, Maree Allison at the Scottish Social Services Council, tells how they encourage colleagues to have coffee breaks over video, and daily team check-ins. However, their most significant step has been to hold Fitness to Practise Panel hearings by Microsoft Teams.

“The worker calls in via their phone or tablet from their home, as do the panel members, clerk and presenting solicitor. We successfully held seven hearings this way last week. This means we are able still to carry out our critical public protection function while respecting the requirement for people to socially isolate.”

Keep it flexible

Marianne McJannet, associate at TC Young, highlights the need to allow flexible hours, especially for the many who now have to juggle childcare as well, “for example working five days over seven, instead of the usual Monday to Friday that we’re all used to”.

Lennox Forensic Accountants in Edinburgh has one model. It allows all staff to adjust working hours to suit childcare needs, “whilst ensuring there is a core overlap between 9.30am and 1pm”, explains founder and director Anne Campbell. “We have found that a shortened window working together really makes us focus our team efforts during those hours, with solo projects working around this, and is far more efficient in terms of service delivery. We hope to take elements forward to help reduce our outgoings and lessen our environmental impact.”

Trainee solicitors face an unusual situation. “My training for the next few months (at least) will be very different from what is considered normal for a trainee,” blogs James McFarlane at Burness Paull. “The nature of the work my team is doing for our clients is already changing and we will need to learn in very different ways.” But he expects the experience to improve his IT skills, as well as his ability to work on his own. “Additional research tasks and blog writing will be top of my list of priorities at moments where I am quiet,” which should be beneficial in the longer run.

Simon Allison’s trainee now receives blind copies of client emails, and creates a matrix for commonly asked questions along with the responses. “We found that the number of new contacts signing up to our mailshot rocketed, resulting in more new clients and an increased workload for the team,” Allison relates.

McJannet recognises, however, that no amount of flexibility will help some people. “The reality is that COVID-19 will have a detrimental effect on the viability of certain businesses.” Some comfort will be derived from the Chancellor’s Job Retention Scheme (described in the feature on p 16), allowing employers to “furlough” staff at up to 80% of their former salary. “Employers will have to reach an agreement with staff, but if the alternative to receiving 80% of your salary is the loss of your job, or time off unpaid, then the likelihood of employees being on board is high.”

Morale boosters

A big question has been, how would individuals keep their spirits up during forced isolation? And prevent home and working life from intruding on each other at the wrong times? Plenty of tips are on offer.

“Structure is important,” affirms Frances Rooney, who has worked alone since leaving Harper Macleod to set up her property advisory service Lexares.

“Even if your working hours are forced to change, ensure you make the usual effort to attend your office. This can do wonders for your mental health and wellbeing during these testing times.”

Her advice includes regular breaks through the day: cooking lunch, taking your permitted exercise, tea and coffee breaks (“even more essential than usual”); limiting your access to social media and news; talking to clients, family and friends, especially by video call; and prioritising learning and professional development.

“Ultimately,” she adds, “make time to do things that make you happy. Read, watch some stand-up comedy or get lost in a streamed live performance of opera or ballet.”

Jennifer Young reveals that: “For me the most important thing was to find a dedicated spot to work that’s quiet and comfortable with good, natural light.

Ideally, you’d be able to shut the door on it at the end of the day, but failing that, make sure you put your work stuff away when you’re finished.”

She adds: “We set up a private Facebook group so colleagues could share hints, tips, news and other non-client-related updates (from who’s volunteering where to remote exercise classes) – a bit like an informal watercooler! This was important for people’s morale, especially those not as used to working remotely.

“We’re also looking into ways we can stream a performance from our firm’s choir, Law Law Land!”

Paula Skinner, partner at Harper Macleod, comments of her team chats:

“We are actually getting to see another side of each other, which is really nice. You have conversations that you might not have in an office environment and we are sharing things more than ever.

“There still has to be a division between work-related interaction and keeping up morale, both from an information security standpoint and a practical one. However morale and team spirit is more important.” Harper Macleod quickly created the “HM homeroom” – an online, virtual community where all can share “insight, knowledge and tips to help take the isolation out of self-isolation”.

Wider picture

Reaching out further, Jones Whyte has stepped up the effort to implement its “Legal Link” network for referred work. “Reciprocally helping colleagues at other firms is a massive part of our ethos,” says Whyte.

For clients, practices have been harnessing their resources to meet new needs. Many have virus-related web briefings. Shepherd & Wedderburn launched a COVID-19 Advisory Group, drawing on specialist expertise across the firm “to provide clients with informed, pragmatic legal advice on the unprecedented challenges”. Gilson Gray created an emergency hotline, covering any area of law, but particularly companies needing advice to survive the crisis.

“Firefighting” probably sums up most firms’ experiences this past month, whether with their own issues or their clients’. And when we finally emerge from our lockdown, our working practices, if not our work, will probably have changed for good.

For more on working successfully from home, see The Word of Gold.
For support from the Law Society of Scotland for legal practices.

Wellbeing: top of the agenda

Olivia Moore flags up Lawscot Wellbeing as a resource, especially where people are physically separated from their colleagues

We launched Lawscot Wellbeing as a dedicated online resource to help support our members and those working within the legal industry with their mental health. During this time of change and uncertainty, it is clear that protecting the mental wellbeing of ourselves and those around us will be ever more vital.

That’s why we’re working hard to keep wellbeing at the centre of our communications with members. Looking after our mental health should be as much a priority during these times as protecting the physical health of our citizens. While it’s important that the legal system keeps functioning, the health of those that work in it is critical.

We have launched a dedicated coronavirus page on the Lawscot Wellbeing section of our website, signposting support, information and advice. We will be posting content regularly, and have kicked off with our homeworking hacks “starter for 10”. We would love members to get engaged as much as possible, so look out for Wellbeing content on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram under #LawscotWellbeing, and share your own tips and advice using the hashtag.

Communication is essential at this time. Speaking regularly to our teams, family and friends is a key part of the routine we should all be following, as it is one of the best and simplest ways to feel more connected and improve our wellbeing. Homeworking and being physically isolated from colleagues is a major change to most people’s routine, so it’s good to feel people are looking out for us and that we are looking out for them.

In particular, we encourage leaders and managers to put wellbeing at the top of their agendas. Look at how you can proactively help your staff, such as by developing a peer-support system, and ask colleagues what they need. Even simply acknowledging that you are thinking about your team’s mental health and understand that everyone has different challenges will have a positive impact.

For individuals, we recommend regularly tuning in to your emotions and recognising when you are feeling anxious or stressed. We all need to ensure we get enough time to relax and switch off, and come back to work refreshed.

LawCare, the legal profession’s dedicated mental health charity, also offers free, confidential emotional support to legal professionals, their support staff and families. They are here to listen to anything that is worrying you, with helpline calls, emails and webchats answered by trained staff and volunteers who have first hand experience of working in the law. Their helpline is open as normal, along with further resources and support online. To speak to someone, call 0800 279 6888.

Olivia Moore is careers development officer at the Law Society of Scotland.

Shutdown, or time to plan?

Legal firms suddenly faced with a shortage of client work may still be able to make good use of their staff, one managing director believes

Courts are effectively shut, both criminal and civil. Househunters can't go viewing, except online. New business has all but dried up, except in sectors like employment. There is no option but to put the relevant teams, or even the whole office, on furlough to get what they can from the Government.

That is said to be the reaction of many firms around the country, especially smaller practices, in response to the lockdown now affecting swathes of the economy. Understandable, perhaps, but is it the only option? And is it wise?

One solicitor who thinks another approach is possible is Nicholas Scullion, managing director of Scullion LAW, who spoke to the Journal from his hospital bed to explain his approach. Yes, Scullion himself is suspected to have fallen victim to COVID-19 at an early stage, and though he believes he is now past the worst, he assures us it can bring “very nasty after-issues”. Hopefully by the time you read this he will be back at work.

Scullion LAW is suffering like everyone else. Over the last full week in March, the firm went from 40 new conveyancing enquiries and 50 in court work, to just one. For transactions already underway, clients are asking to go on hold – and many mortgage offers are being withdrawn. Family law is still busy, but dispute resolution is only possible through online mediation. And while people are suddenly more willing to think about wills and powers of attorney, and consultations can take place online, the other main profit centres are on “Sleeping Beauty time”.

But Scullion believes that those who are immediately putting staff on furlough as a response may be “missing a trick”. Before taking any such decisions he is going to review all the alternatives that working from home could provide: redeployment (such as contacting clients to ask if they need to revise their wills), file audit, risk assessment, process improvement, and staff training – as in whether the firm is making the fullest use of its IT capability. He believes hard times could be the trigger for many firms to embrace IT and fully explore remote working.

His firm would shortly be holding a management meeting to plan its approach. “We will make decisions based on the data, and keep things under regular review.

“The Government is making a big effort to make money available, so we want to make a big team effort too, focusing on keeping the business going and improving it for the future.”

From having been ill, he adds, the main thing he has learned as managing director “is that I have complete trust in my team”. They created “amazing plans, strategies, ways of reaching out to clients, and we have never before been so united in vision and mission. The team spirit is excellent and we want to ensure we have a strong and successful business when we come out the other side”.

He adds: “These are scary times for all of us, and far and away the most important thing is to look out for and after each other: be kind, patient and understanding. This is health and family time; business comes second.

“When lockdown ends, I hope the legal profession will retain the flexibility and adaptability it has demonstrated during this crisis. A good example has been the court system, which has used more videoconferencing and allowed procedural diets to call without the client physically having to attend court. This has enabled it to deal with massive volumes efficiently.

“Such willingness to change the norm and embrace technology provides benefits for all of us, through lockdown and beyond.

I would be keen to hear the views of other legal professionals.”

The Author

Peter Nicholson, editor, the Journal

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