Nathan Evans (Partner) and Julia Carey (Newly Qualified Solicitor) of HCR Hewitsons share their experiences of working remotely within private practice during the pandemic and explain some of the lessons learned for the “new normal”.
The Partner's View - Nathan Evans
The past 18 months have been challenging for everyone. At the start of 2020, no one could have predicted by how much our lives and working patterns would change in the months that followed.
It has laid bare, and worsened, the deep socio-economic divisions within our society. In the legal profession, we should be thankful:
Technology was, therefore, at a place where most lawyers could do their work and research effectively from home.
Things could have been worse but, naturally, could also have been better.
Our work requires us to communicate, collaborate and make progress against tight deadlines along with demanding standards and expectations. Having access to our offices and colleagues support us in achieving these goals. Losing the office overnight, therefore, brought challenges and adapting to these quickly was essential but not easy.
The typical lawyer is target driven, goal-orientated and, often, self-critical. Some of us need continuous reassurance (I do), which is harder to receive remotely. Some lawyers become obsessive in isolation, which can lead to inefficiencies. Others need their commute to switch off from work. Some just want, or need, to keep their home and work lives separate.
The boundaries between home and work were blurring before the pandemic and are now non-existent. This is a problem.
For me, tasks that were easy and taken for granted before the pandemic, such as reading a room, spotting micro-aggressions, building trust and communicating effectively suddenly became harder and more exhausting in lockdown.
My wife and children disagree, but generally I see myself as having strong emotional intelligence. I have a good sense of what my clients are thinking and feeling. However, this has not been the case whilst working from home.
For example, during a difficult deal over the summer, I attended a video conference with a client and the conversation went as follows:
Nathan: “I’m not stressed about how the deal’s going”
Client: “Well I am stressed, Nathan, I am!”
I had very clearly missed the mark and I genuinely do not think that I would have had we been sat together. On video, I found it harder to identify anxiety and stress, possibly because everyone was displaying a baseline of anxiety and stress brought about by the pandemic.
After that happened, I tried to adjust the way that I managed online meetings and now proactively force myself to:
I wish that my call had gone as follows, and with the steps above, it may well have done:
“This has been a hard transaction. I know it appears that there is no end in sight, and I know how you feel. However, I know, because I have been here many times before, that we will get there in the end. That’s I’m not stressed but please talk to me about your concerns.”
We should also not forget that if we are failing to spot when clients are in distress, we are no doubt also failing our colleagues. It is clearly harder to support colleagues remotely and to spot when friends are in distress. Communicating and fostering a supportive, collaborate environment is the only way to mitigate that.
Video conferencing has been an extremely useful tool during the pandemic, enabling communication with clients, collaboration with colleagues whilst also making us more accessible.
However, in my view, you can have too much of a good thing, and there is a time and place for video conferencing. That time and place is not every single meeting.
It is important to ask yourself:
“If, before the pandemic, I would have taken this meeting by telephone, why am I now taking it by video conference?”
When working remotely, I prefer to be ‘telephone by default’ and believe there are many good reasons for feeling this way:
If a video conference has been arranged, I now choose to disable the video initially. I believe this reduces pressure on the other person to turn their video on and provides an element of choice. I do not believe that anybody should have to apologise for not turning their video on and I see this all too often.
The move to remote working and travel restrictions at the time resulted in unrealistic and unsustainable expectations (both internally and externally) on availability and responsiveness.
I have found that this has resulted in it becoming near impossible to allocate sufficient time to sit and concentrate on a task without distraction.
Meetings and calls are no longer scheduled in the same way and have become ad-hoc. They are also far more frequent: our diaries are often thought of as ‘always open’.
My concern is that this is becoming detrimental to the quality of our work, and more importantly, the enjoyment we have in doing it. The result is fatigue, frustration, and error.
In order to address some of these issues I now:
The Newly Qualified View - Julia Carey
I started a training contract in September 2019 and, like everyone else, had no idea that six months later we would all be working from home with no access to the office for some time. I will admit, it was daunting at first. How was I going to check all the queries each day? How would I receive supervision without disturbing everyone all the time?
It was unexpected but we all adapted quickly and, as mentioned above, we were fortunate to be in a profession where it was possible to work from home effectively.
Supervision and contact
There has been a lot of conversation and concern regarding the fact that the development of junior staff is at risk of being held up due to a lack of direct contact as a result of remote working. I certainly found that I missed out on hearing conversations in the office and listening to the way a solicitor phrases advice to clients. From a personal point of view, I have always been more comfortable providing written advice rather than verbal advice. Therefore, I was acutely aware that an area I wished to improve upon was going to be made much harder due to the pandemic.
I found the following helpful:
Another aspect of remote working during the training contract was that it was no longer possible to ask quick questions as you would sitting with colleagues in the office. I was conscious of not constantly calling colleagues or sending messages, especially since we no longer had the luxury of being able to see how busy someone was and whether it was a convenient time to speak.
I would recommend still asking questions, particularly if by not doing so you become held up on a task. However, it might be possible to collate queries and ask for a short call to go through any questions with the relevant colleague. This is often more efficient for both parties.
New enquiry calls are often the first point of contact for the client and it is important to get it right. The process was different in each department and, prior to the pandemic, you would learn how to take such a call by hearing colleagues in the office. Obviously, this was no longer possible. Therefore, I checked with colleagues, compiled a list of appropriate questions and checked with the current supervisor.
I have found it useful being back in the office, especially since joining a new firm upon qualification. I have appreciated meeting colleagues and I always find it easier working with others after having met in person.
In general, although it depends upon individual circumstances, it seems that people appreciate the opportunity for blended working, and I think this is a pattern which is here to stay. It is important to recognise as many positives as we can from a time that has been challenging for everyone.
Although no one knows what the future holds, if a recommendation to work from home is put in place again, at least we are now accustomed to remote working. It will be important to take learning points forward if we do transition back to remote working. For example, making sure we check in on colleagues and continue to share knowledge.
Junior lawyers especially will be pleased to hear that there is no such thing as a stupid question: be a sponge and learn as much as you can. I will certainly continue to keep this in mind.
HCR survey and conclusion
We are not alone in our concerns regarding remote working. At HCR we have been thinking extensively about what our future workplace will look like.
An online survey including 409 respondents canvassed opinions from HCR staff and clients regarding working patterns both before and during the pandemic. The results showed a distinct shift under the extreme conditions of lockdown.
Positivity about working from home fell with many respondents reporting longer working hours, a downward shift in wellbeing and reduced effectiveness.
Despite enjoying the absence of commuting, work-life balance was little changed. For further insight on such topics, our full report is available here.
We have all been required to adapt our working habits during the pandemic and although challenges have arisen, we have also learnt a lot from the situation.
Whilst it has been a difficult 18 months for us all, we are hopeful that the blended working environment we have become used to will provide more flexibility. Perhaps we can have the best of both worlds after all.
Keep safe and well from all of us at HCR.
Nathan Evans is a specialist IT/tech lawyer with expertise in complex strategic projects including systems/platform/apps builds. He is a member of the Outsourcing Group Committee @ The Society for Computers and Law. Nathan’s clients include first tier software firms, industry-leading trade tech companies, and tech start-ups.
Julia Carey is a newly qualified commercial solicitor based in HCR’s Cambridge Office.