As a business owner and practitioner, my immediate feeling when Covid19 struck in February 2020, was one of panic and fear. Visions of the economic crash of 2008 clouded my mind again, when I would regularly lie awake at night worrying about being able to pay the bills. After recovering from this downturn, I was just beginning to feel hopeful and relaxed again. I had opened another office in early February and developed a new website. I had hired more staff and my loans were manageable.
When the news of the first lockdown happened, I started imagining the worst. Would business dry up, how would I pay wages, would I have to lay off staff.
My business is providing legal services. I am a solicitor with a law firm based in Dooradoyle, Limerick and Castletroy, Limerick. A solicitors office in many ways is like any other business with staff to pay, rent to pay, rates, and professional fees. Our business depends on clients to survive. Our client base is primarily private client. This means we concentrate on legal issues that affect people’s day to day lives more so than issues affecting corporations. Our clients are made up of individuals buying and selling property, individuals with family law issues, those who want to make Wills and those who have a personal injury case or employment law matter. We would also do leases and franchise agreements for small businesses and assist them with contracts. I would say our type of practice is representative of the majority of firms in the country. The ethos of the practice has always been to deliver a superior professional service with kindness and the personal touch.
There are 11 people working in my practice, a mixture of solicitors and support staff. The majority of employees in the office have young children of school going age and both lockdowns have been quite difficult in terms of staffing the office, keeping cases progressed and having to change our mindset from meeting every client in person to meeting clients over Zoom. Solicitors are deemed key workers under Covid guidelines but due to a lack of childcare it is not possible for all of us to attend the office on a full time basis. What we struggled with the most was not the technology, our office is well set up for us to work remotely. The main problem encountered by my team was that we were not able to meet clients in person like we used to.
Personally, I like to meet clients face to face. I do not think that Zoom can replace the face to face meeting. Take for instance, an initial family law consultation. It can often take months or even years for people to work up the courage to engage a solicitor in a family law matter. This could be because they are hoping things at home will change or that it is better to wait until the children get older or their spouse has threatened that if they do make a move towards separating that they will loose contact with the children or be financially in a precarious position. As a solicitor, I see my role when I meet family law clients for the first time as someone who can provide guidance on the legal options but also someone who can offer reassurance. When a client is sitting across from me I can see clearly not only their facial movements ( sadness, worry, doubt ) but I can also see their entire body language. I can see them shaking their legs, twisting their hands, taking notes. More importantly however they know that they are in a safe place, it is just me and them in the consult room. With Zoom, and especially with spouses working from home it can be hard to make a Zoom call happen. I find when I am on Zoom it is often the case that the client is looking behind them the entire time for fear that they will caught discussing matters with their solicitor. With an in person appointment you can also introduce them to members of your team that they may be encountering in emails or phone calls. This also helps put them at ease. On top of all this many clients are not computer literate. Some do not have access to a computer or smart phone.
I will give a further example of an elderly person attending to make a Will. Particularly during the first lockdown we had a number of elderly people contact us about making Wills. Some just turned up at our door. It was very apparent to me that they were frightened of contracting covid. Many of these clients did not know how to work with zoom and did not possess a smart phone or other 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 would not be suitable for some clients but we felt more comfortable sitting ( socially distant ) with the client to take their instructions. One client remarked that his son brought him to the appointment and he didn’t want to sit in the car with his son as there were issues. Another felt 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 that I 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 was more or less redundant. Examining these views more closely, I think a lot of the posts came from firms that were largely corporate based and I felt that the view of the the private practitioner should be advanced. I am not saying that there isn’t a place for zoom or working from home. We use Zoom but what I am saying is that many clients need and appreciate the face to face meeting, staff need to see each other for moral and collaboration on cases. I can see a future for legal practices like my own where there will be a mixture of virtual and in office. I think after the lockdown many practitioners will be glad to return to their offices and for routines to re-established.