As a business owner and practitioner, my immediate feelings when Covid19 struck in February 2020, were panic and fear. Visions of the economic crash of 2008 clouded my mind again. After recovering from this downturn, I was beginning to feel hopeful and relaxed again. I had opened a second office in early February and developed a new website. I hired additional staff and my loans were manageable.
When news of the first lockdown broke, I started to imagine the worst. Would my business evaporate over night? Would I be able to cover wages? Would I have to lay off staff?
I am a solicitor with a law firm in Dooradoyle, Limerick and in Castletroy, Limerick. A solicitor’s practice in many ways, is like any other business, with fixed overheads such as staff costs, rent, rates and professional fees. Our business requires clients in-order to survive and our client base is primarily private. This means that as a firm, we mainly concentrate on legal issues affecting peoples’ day to day lives more so than issues which would generally be dealt with by large corporate law firms. Our clients are made up of individuals buying or selling property, people who have family law issues to resolve, people who need to make a will and those who have a personal injury case or an employment law matter. We advise on leases and franchise agreements for small businesses. We also assist them with contracts relating to same. Our practice is very similar if not identical to a majority of urban and rural law firms the length and breadth of this Country. The ethos of our practice has always been to deliver a superior professional service with a human and personal touch.
There are 11 people working in my practice, a mixture of solicitors and support staff. Adhering to covid guidelines has been difficult in many ways. The most difficult aspect has been managing the mindset change with our clients where Zoom has had to replace the very essential client/solicitor physical visit. Solicitors are deemed to be ‘key workers’ under the Government (Covid) guidelines, however the guidelines meant that it was not possible for all of us to attend the office on a full-time basis. Our office is established well for all of us to work remotely, so unlike other firms’, technology was not our main obstacle. My team felt that the biggest issue was that we were unable to meet clients in person, like we used to do.
Personally, and professionally, I like to meet clients face to face. Zoom does not replace a face-to-face meeting. It does not even come close to replicating the vital substance of a physical one to one client/solicitor interaction. Take for instance, an initial family law consultation; it can often take months, sometimes even years, for people to build up enough courage to engage a solicitor in a family law matter. Usually, these matters are highly emotive for all involved, and the people themselves are hoping that things at home will improve. Sometimes, the people involved feel that it might be better to wait until their children get older. Perhaps one spouse has threatened the other, that if they do make a move towards separating, they will lose contact with the children or suddenly be plunged into a financially precarious position. As a solicitor, my role initially, when I meet family law clients is not only to provide guidance on legal options open to clients, but also to provide reassurance. When a client is sitting across from me, I can clearly see not only their facial movements (sadness, worry and doubt usually) but I can also read from their entire body language. More importantly however, they know that they are now in a safe place, alone with me in the consult room. With many spouses working from home, Zoom calls are difficult to organize, difficult to work through, and video communication technology remove important aspects for the client, one of which is to feel that they are truly in a safe place. It can also be quite hard to make a zoom call happen. Often, I find that the client is looking behind themselves incessantly, on a Zoom call, in fear that they will ‘caught’ discussing matters with their solicitor. Furthermore, many clients are not computer literate, some do not have access to a computer or a smart phone.
Another example of this was a client of mine, an elderly person attending to make a will. This was a common occurrence throughout the first lockdown last March. Some clients simply turned up at our door. It was very apparent to me that they were frightened of contracting covid19. Many of these clients did not know how to work Zoom, or indeed did not possess a smart phone or suchlike device. We were aware that many solicitors were making wills for people in their cars or through the windows of their house, but my colleagues and I were not happy to proceed on this basis. I am not saying that this approach wouldn’t necessarily be suitable for some clients, but we felt more comfortable sitting (social distanced) with the client to take their instructions. One client remarked that his son had brought him to the appointment. However, he (the client) did not want to sit in the car alongside his son attending to these issues, as there were delicate matters which he was deeply uncomfortable discussing in front of the son. This is quite common. Another client felt that he could not openly discuss concerns he had if I met him at his house (which he shared with other family members).
What prompted me to write this blog was reading about other practitioners’ experiences of working from home. These experiences seemed to be largely positive and the consensus was that the physical office had now become redundant. Examining these views closer, I think that a lot of the posts came from corporate legal firms, and therefore, I felt that the view of a private practitioner should be advanced. We use Zoom and of course there are plenty of advantages associated with it and the other video communication platforms such as Microsoft Teams. However, many clients need and appreciate a face-to-face meeting. Staff need to see each other for moral support and team collaboration on cases. I can see a future for legal practices like my own where there will be a mixture of both virtual and in-office components. After lockdown, I believe that many practitioners will be only too happy to return to their offices and for their respective pre-Covid professional routines to become re-established…perhaps even the solicitors who prefer working from home on Zoom now!