Legal Lessons Learned in 2020 from the Pandemic
Clare Mellor, Chief Executive at Thompsons Solicitors, looks at how legal services have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes that are here to stay – many of which are long overdue.
We’ve all had to change – and we’ve had to change quickly. Some may argue this was only because we were faced with a case of ‘need meets must’, but one thing that COVID-19 has shown is that even the most complex business can innovate and simplify at speed, when necessary.
Working practices have adapted at a pace that we wouldn’t have envisioned 12 months ago. And while short, sharp shock is not a management method recommended for the fainthearted, the strides we have made into a heavily digitalised world and of home working has brought benefits.
Testing times for IT services
In the space of just two weeks in March, Thompsons’ IT team went from supporting approximately 30 people working from home for some days of a working week, to more than 500 people working from home every day. Our IT infrastructure was tested like never before and it coped. Within weeks, remote scanning, printing, conference calling and other digital communications went from the occasional to the norm and systems had to be established to cope with that as well as electronic trial bundles and supporting staff with online court hearings. And then there was the provision of hundreds of laptops that had to be programmed and distributed, diverting phone systems, and running a contact centre from people’s bedrooms and kitchens.
A greater focus on paperless working is an environmental change that is long overdue, but it remains important that all our colleagues remain confident in these new modes of working. Another win for the environment that looks like it will be permanent is less travel between offices, with colleagues settling into an acceptance that remote meetings and working from home will be far more common than it was 12 months ago.
With over 800 staff and 18 offices in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, and running over 30,000 cases at any one time, an online client portal enabling our clients to stay informed on the status of their claims 24 hours a day, seven days a week and to interact with us remotely has been a digital innovation made by firms with less tight margins or outside investors that we have eyed with envy. COVID-19 has forced the pace of change on that for us and our client portal is now being rolled out and will be available to our individual clients and our partner unions, so they have appropriate digital support as well. It comes at a time of unique employment uncertainty and enables us to move faster against employers using every trick in the book to prioritise profit over the fair treatment of their employees.
As the COVID-19 months have rolled on, client expectations have changed. Zoom meetings and Microsoft Teams calls are the norm and not seeing your lawyer suited and booted but working from the kitchen table with the occasional appearance of the family pet is all acceptable now. Our clients get to know the more human side of our legal advisers and that is a good thing. As long as social justice remains at our core and protecting the rights of workers remains our priority, the formality of the traditional client and lawyer meeting can afford to take a hit.
The introduction of virtual Joint Settlement Meetings (JSMs) has been a major (and long overdue) breakthrough for the sector. For us, our first virtual JSM was in March as lockdown loomed and, since then, we have seen the remote settlement of numerous cases countrywide worth millions of pounds. Damages remain at appropriate levels and so long as they do from our claimant perspective, the virtual JSM can be here to stay.
Laying down old enmities
Despite no love being lost between Thompsons and the insurance industry over the last 100 years, the onset of the pandemic saw us getting round a virtual table with the Association of British Insurers (ABI), to negotiate a UK-wide protocol that ensured cases could proceed with offices and courts closed.
More than 155 organisations signed up to the protocol because, under lockdown, the normal adversarial rules governing the personal injury claims process began to fray, access to justice for injured claimants was under threat and too great to ignore. The protocol put a practical framework in place and was an example of joined up thinking – and working – at its best.
Flexibility is key
The future must be flexible but with give and take with clients, between parties in cases and between employers and their staff.
Online case handling won’t work for some clients, and remote hearings make no sense if they don’t produce the same results. While working from home has its benefits, it will remain paramount that colleagues have some time in the office to collaborate with staff and take part in meetings that wouldn’t work remotely.
The long-term impact
Uniquely in the legal sector, we are proud to be unionised and encourage union membership and, while in practical terms there is no going back, we aren’t in the business of taking advantage of a downturn or of digitalisation to shed staff and maximise profit. So almost as fast as we moved from office to home working, we are thinking through the long-term implications of the new ways of working.
The digital genie is out of the bottle and agile working is suddenly not only desirable for some but achievable for many. Making that change work well is about trust and honesty, of course, but it is also about having the right processes and policies and support in place to ensure it is a real and effective option for the business as well as a positive work-life option for employees and that entails re-thinking how we motivate, mentor, develop and reward staff.
Social justice law firm Thompsons Solicitors has been standing up for the injured and mistreated since 1921. Thompsons has fought for millions of people, won countless landmark cases and secured key legal reforms.