Law firms rise to the challenges of Covid-19, looking after staff, trainees and clients with innovative solutions
Courts shut, empty offices and official records locked away would have sounded like the backdrop for a futuristic TV drama, if we hadn’t just lived through eight months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although it’s created upheaval, it is clear that many law firms coped technically with the transition to working from home and supporting their staff. Clients were tolerant of delays and appreciated professional support in the unprecedented times.
New ways of working were quickly adopted with video calls, online training, virtual custody hearings becoming the norm. Some things will probably never go back to how they were.
At Pinsent Masons, its 500 Scottish staff had been equipped for “agile working” for some time. “At the start of the pandemic everyone had the ability to go home and work pretty much as normal and our IT systems were already in place to do this,” says Katharine Hardie, the firm’s chair in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“Without a doubt if this had happened 10 years ago all businesses would have been in difficulty, but technology has allowed people to change their working habits and, on the whole, it has worked extremely well for us and for our clients.
“Platforms such as Microsoft Teams have enabled us to continue face-to-face meeting with clients, albeit on a screen, and today’s technology has ensured we continue to deliver high-level client work,” she says.
“Teams calls also allow screen sharing and collaboration so we can support junior colleagues, get sight of the work they are doing, and can comment and advise as required. It is remarkable how everyone had adapted so quickly.”
The situation is much the same at Shepherd and Wedderburn. “We were fortunate to have well established agile working and business continuity programmes at the start of the pandemic,” says Andrew Blain, the managing partner.
“Although it was a challenge to transition more than 450 people to home working at such short notice, there was no interruption to client service. Our lawyers and support staff continue to work remotely, and we are using our video conferencing technology successfully to conduct remote meetings with clients, contacts and colleagues.
“It has also been so encouraging to see colleagues find new ways to work together, sharing knowledge and pulling together to support clients through new initiatives such as our Covid-19 Advisory Group. The crisis has brought out the best in our people.”
Staff welfare has been a key consideration and everyone talks about missing the social side of office life. However what about the people embarking on their first jobs?
At Pinsent Masons, 19 graduate lawyers started their training in September and there has been a particular focus on supporting them as they have embark on office-based legal work.
Hardie says: “Normally our trainees would meet in a hotel for the first five days and get to know each other and they would be put through their paces on legal skills, office procedures, negotiating contracts and drafting documents.
“That’s not possible now, but the same workshops have been delivered online and we have tried to maintain the social aspect too, so that the trainees did not lose the really important camaraderie they get from being together in that initial introduction phase.
“All trainees have a supervisor but I think because of remote working, this supervisor role has become much more focussed and is now a really important aspect of the training contract, acting as a link between the trainees and the rest of the teams.”
At Shepherd and Wedderburn people had to adapt to supervising and training junior staff remotely. Lynn Beaumont, head of knowledge and service delivery explains that the firm has already invested in e-learning software.
“So, as well as delivering training over video conferencing platforms, we’ve created many e-learning modules that combine video footage, screen capture footage, slides and even animation. A lot of these are short, ‘just in time’ modules that people can tap into as and when needed.”
She notes that they have seen improved attendance. “Partly that’s because it’s easier to attend a virtual session (no need to move from the desk), but also because people like the opportunity to connect with colleagues.
“Over the summer we turned our traditional law student summer placement programme into a virtual placement. Using Microsoft Teams we delivered a highly interactive training programme with legal research tasks, drafting workshops, quizzes, online Q&As, speed networking sessions and more.”
On an individual level, the reality of working from home will be a very personal experience. We hear about the young lawyers sharing flats with former classmates now working for competitor firms and the way parents juggle childcare or home lessons with conference calls.
Allana Sweeney, a senior associate in Shepherd and Wedderburn’s restructuring and business advisory team, has some valuable insights after working from home with a commercial banking manager husband and a two-year-old daughter.
“I think it has been very easy during lockdown to become subsumed by all of its challenges and the negativity it creates. Finding time where you can to get a bit of exercise or to chat to family and friends to switch off for a while is therefore really important,” she says.
“My top piece of advice for anyone working from home would be try to remember that everyone has their own challenges (personal and professional) many of which will be hidden and could be far worse than your own – be kind and supportive and always make the phone call if you think someone needs a boost.”
Christie Allan, a second-year trainee at Pinsent Masons in the litigation team in Glasgow, reflects on how Covid changed her working life.
When Scotland went into lockdown in March, I was one week into starting my six-month “seat” in Pinsent Masons’ banking team in Edinburgh.
Luckily, we were equipped with laptops, mobile phones and remote access to the firm’s network, so business continued fairly as normal.
Having already adjusted to Pinsent Masons’ agile working environment, I was used to the idea of not having an assigned desk and sitting beside different members of the team.
I knew that I could set up anywhere for a day’s work, and this had been tried and tested when I was required to work from the London office. I found myself adapting relatively seamlessly.
Having now experienced remote working in two different teams, I have had the opportunity to see how teams are keeping spirits and morale high, with regular catch-up calls, quizzes, virtual drinks, guest appearances and online escape rooms.
Solicitors at all levels, as well as our designated trainee supervisors and the graduate development team, appear to be very aware of the challenges of remote working that trainees face in particular, and have been very forthcoming with regular video chats.
This has been hugely beneficial in terms of offering an opportunity to ask the more minor questions you wouldn’t dedicate to an email or phone call, and to discuss capacity, workload and experience in general.
Managing partner, John Cleland, and senior partner, Richard Foley, have also helped with their daily “Stay Connected” emails, which provide us with updates and videos on the current situation, the business, and how we can keep working towards our Purpose as a firm during this time.
The thing I miss most about traditional office setting is the natural human interaction – being able to make that first impression in person through casual small talk in the office; meeting other trainees in the canteen for lunch; hearing about and seeing the different work going on within the team; and having the opportunity to ask questions easily.
That being said, by working from home, I have learned to manage my time more flexibly and I have been pushed to become more pro-active in order to remain visible within a new team.
I have had the opportunity to get stuck into work in the same way as if I were in the office, and if anything, remote working has forced me to adapt and develop new skills of communication which will hopefully equip me for the next stage of my legal career.