Just over a year ago, the UK went into its first national lockdown to curb the outbreak of the global Covid-19 pandemic. After 12 months of turning our kitchen tables into makeshift offices, ensuring that our children and pets do not make surprise appearances during client meetings or court hearings, and continuously reminding each other to mute or unmute ourselves, the question arises as to what lessons we might take away from spending a year practising law remotely. Everybody’s experiences of the pandemic will differ, but some lessons are likely to have been at the heart of everyone’s past year operating in the legal world.
Lesson 1: Technology is essential
Technology had been a buzzword for the legal industry for some time but the pandemic demonstrated just how essential it has become to the profession. For an industry that perhaps suffers from a reputation of being relatively traditional, the legal sector managed to adapt to the requirements of working remotely with impressive speed. Whole firms transitioned to fully remote working while maintaining business as usual: seminars, training events and business development were moved to virtual platforms. Meanwhile, the judiciary ensured that access to justice was largely maintained by embracing virtual hearings and trials.
In short, the legal industry proved how quickly it could adopt new technologies when left with no other option. In fact, as pay cuts are being reversed, drawings restored and government loans repaid, it appears that many City law firms did not just survive the pandemic but thrived.
The expanding role of technology begs the question of where its limitations might lie in the legal sector. For certain areas, such as family law or criminal law, remote hearings are unlikely to replace in-person attendance at court for good. In addition, certain parts of court hearings and trials are arguably less effective when carried out remotely – for example, advocacy and cross-examination will always have the most impact when performed in person.
To put it simply, technology is here to stay and we must embrace it. The world is becoming more and more digitalised and the legal sector cannot afford to lag behind if it wants to stay competitive and continue to offer premium services to clients. The pandemic has shown that technological innovation can and often should happen rapidly; and we now know that the legal sector is more than capable of doing this successfully and with great benefit to practitioners, clients and the judiciary alike.
Lesson 2: Working from home is viable
The pandemic has introduced a completely new style of working for lawyers: full-time remote working. Many firms permitted working from home before the pandemic but it is fair to say that this was the exception to the rule of being present at the office.
However, pandemic-induced orders to stay at home turned that approach on its head. Employers had to trust their employees to perform their jobs to the same high standard at home as they did in the office and to invest the same number of hours doing so, regardless of physical location. By all accounts, the legal world went above and beyond, thereby establishing that working from home can be reconciled with the requirements of the job and should be treated as an effective way to give lawyers more job flexibility.
From an employer’s perspective, allowing employees to work remotely may mean that personnel can be recruited from a wider pool of talent because geographical location will not be an eliminating factor. It also means that where existing employees are combined into cross-disciplinary and cross-border teams, those teams can work together more smoothly and efficiently, because there are systems in place and in everyday use that provide for communication and collaboration not linked to physically being in the same place.
Having highlighted the upsides of remote working, it would be remiss not to point out the benefits of spending time face to face with colleagues and clients. Not being in the same space for a year may have reminded us of the professional and social value of contact in person. Ad hoc conversations with colleagues can lead to collaborative problem solving and input into case-specific questions; meeting clients in person facilitates networking and maintaining relationships.
Remote working is therefore not a way to avoid a return to the office but a viable option to provide greater flexibility to the profession in future.
Lesson 3: Mental wellbeing is key
Without a doubt, the impact of the pandemic on the collective mental wellbeing of society has been huge, and its consequences will be felt for years to come. The legal industry functions in a high-pressure environment. The pandemic has brought existing mental wellbeing initiatives to the fore and forced us all to become even more conscious of our own mental health – as well as that of our clients, colleagues, employers and employees.
Over the past decade, mental health awareness has continuously increased and is now taking centre stage in many work environments. Firms have recognised that in addition to their legal obligation to ensure the general welfare of employees, placing a focus on mental wellbeing ultimately leads to more productive, efficient, content and loyal employees.
Dealing with the additional challenges presented by the pandemic has brought the necessity of addressing mental health issues in the workplace into even sharper focus. Across the legal sector, firms had already set up resources such as on-site counsellors, mentor check-ins, mental health first-aiders, and educational events raising awareness of the risks of mental health issues and teaching ways to address those issues.
The added significance of such resources during the pandemic cannot be overstated and legal professionals will and should continue to benefit from them in a post-pandemic world.
Susanne Buergi is an associate at Hogan Lovells and a member of the Junior London Solicitors Litigation Association Committee