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Practising law in the time of COVID-19

Practising law in the time of COVID-19

By Karin Derkley

COVID-19 Interviews 

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Lawyers are finding creative ways to practise in the shutdown. Six lawyers share details of their remote working lives.

The COVID-19 shutdown has had a huge impact on the legal profession, with hold-ups in the criminal justice system and a fall in demand from clients meaning many firms have had to scale back on staff numbers or cut pay rates and days worked. But lawyers have also rapidly adapted to the new conditions and are finding new ways to keep their businesses alive and even thrive in these uncertain times. 

Here’s how six Victorian lawyers are managing in the time of COVID-19. 

Harriet Warlow-ShillHarriet Warlow-Shill, partner, FAL Lawyers

Commercial lawyer Harriet Warlow-Shill got the email in the early hours of 11 March that her children’s school was closing as of that day after one of its teachers tested positive to COVID-19.

With six children ranging from toddler to high school now at home, the family went into lockdown at the same time as her firm’s office closed and staff went into working from home mode. 

The first couple of weeks were the hardest she says, as the household adjusted to all being at home and staff had to be equipped to manage the new remote working arrangements. “Those first few days were chaos,” she says.

But by week three Ms Warlow-Shill says the routine for household and the firm have come together and “I've been quite productive on actual client work". What helped was that the firm was already used to working with a couple of overseas-based team members, one in New Zealand and one in Israel. “So we were already used to the daily effort of keeping up and communicating and collaborating online.”

With some clients having put transactions on hold, others have done well so far during the crisis – one makes hand sanitiser, others are medical technology companies, and the firm also does a lot of government work. “But at the moment we don’t have ambitions of turning over a profit. 

Our priority is to look after our team and to keep engaging with clients and looking after them."

One growth area has been advising clients and others on how to take their business into hibernation during the pandemic. “Early on, even before [Prime Minister] Scott Morrison used the term, we realised that would be an issue for many clients.” Ms Warlow-Shill’s businesshibernation.com.au website helps businesses negotiate on rent and find government funding for businesses.

Ms Warlow-Shill says she has also used the time to amp up her online and social media presence, with webinars to provide tips on how businesses can survive the pandemic. 

The firm is also looking at FinTech products that can help provide automated payment instalment plans for clients."It’s a way to help clients pay their invoices over time and reduce administration costs for us as a law firm.”

Tom Bennett-MitrovskiTom Bennett-Mitrovski, lawyer, McKean Park Lawyers

For Tom Bennett-Mitrovski, who has been with his firm McKean Park Lawyers for less than a year, one of the biggest anxieties about working from home was not being able to bounce ideas off senior practitioners.

But regular Zoom meetings, emails and phone calls have helped him feel supported, he says. “Everyone is making a special effort. It’s obviously a difficult time and people are stressed, but everyone is conscious of remaining positive and demonstrating that work from home arrangements can be as productive as working in an office.”

The whole firm moved to work-from-home mode from 30 March, dropping to a four day week and taking a 20 per cent pay cut to reflect the fall in work in the first few weeks of the shutdown.

But there’s been a rebound in inquiries more recently, Mr Bennett-Mitrovski says. “I think people are becoming more comfortable with managing their businesses remotely and seeing that business will need to resume – and that often involves lawyers.”

While he misses social interaction with colleagues in the office kitchen or with clients at after work catch-ups, Mr Bennett-Mitrovski believes the impact of the industry moving to remote work will be positive long term.

“We've been forced to use a lot of systems and processes like videoconferencing that people previously didn’t have the time to commit to learning, or were perhaps a bit risk averse about using.

“There are drawbacks of not being in the same room as a client or colleague, but you can also reduce costs for clients because you can schedule things more tightly and spend less time travelling to and from court. And your contact with colleagues is more targeted because you make the most of the time you have with that person.”

GlenThoxtonGlenn Thexton, principal, Thexton Lawyers

For someone used to being in and out of court on a daily basis, the drop in court time has been the biggest shake-up for family and criminal lawyer Glenn Thexton. “I’ve been to court only twice this week, so that’s a bit of a change for me.”

But Mr Thexton says he is using the extra time to attend to other parts of his practice, such as his firm’s social media presence. “It’s so important that we make sure we’re really accessible to clients, even if it is not going to generate a fee right now.”

With much of his work coming in from Facebook advertising, he says advisory work is still flowing in. “It’s probably more so than normal because other law firms are not spending money on advertising.”

Even so, he did take the chance to cut some costs by winding up the lease of his Brisbane office – keeping the Melbourne, Perth and Sydney offices – and has also let go of three employees.

Remaining staff will be kept on with the help of the JobKeeper allowance and a possible business loan as well. “We’ve now got a lean and mean stable of people and we’re committed to working through this together.”

His aim now is to keep generating work and cashflow. “There are plenty of people who are still in stable employment and are not as affected in terms of their constraints on their finances.”

And on the other side, he is counting on his slimmed down operation to gear up for the onslaught of matters once courts reopen. “If we can keep standing, we will be successful in the long run.” 

Sharon GivoniSharon Givoni, principal, Sharon Givoni Consulting Intellectual Property Law Firm

Intellectual property lawyer Sharon Givoni says it’s been business as usual for her team of four since the COVID-19 shutdown. With her firm spread across three smaller offices in Melbourne and Brisbane, social distancing and working remotely was already the norm. “Everything has always been accessible online for everyone in our team.”

After an initial quiet spell, Ms Givoni says more inquiries have been coming in recently. “I find that surprising, because I would have thought that trademarks and IP would be the last thing on people’s minds during this time. But I think people have had a bit of downtime to reflect on things such as how to make sure their work is protected.”

Ms Givoni says she has been upgrading her website to reflect the concerns of clients during the COVID-19 period, working on research papers and a new privacy agreement – “the kinds of things that will keep us a step ahead”. She has also negotiated half rent to cut costs, and registered with the government’s small business support services.

Optimistic about the future – “I keep thinking it’s all going to be back to normal tomorrow” – she believes law firms that will survive the current regime will be those which can be the most accessible and responsive to clients during the pandemic.

Technology is the key to that, she says. “I think social distancing measures will bring a shift in legal culture to change the methods of working and delivering legal services. While working remotely has been around for a long time, I think many law firms have clung to the old ways of doing things, and I think that is going to have to change.”

Maintaining the health and wellbeing of staff is essential though, she says. “The emotional and mental health aspect of COVID-19 is particularly hard on lawyers who already have ridiculously high pressure in their work and are struggling not just with the technology but with the expectations of clients.”

Leah TolleyLeah Tolley, principal, Tolley Legal

Bendigo lawyer Leah Tolley says that after managing high client loads and the always complex areas of child protection, family violence matters and youth crime, she thought she had mastered multi-tasking. “But if COVID-19 has taught me anything it's that you are always capable of a little bit more,” she says.

One plus is less travel visiting clients in Swan Hill, Echuca and Mildura. “That means I can answer the phone and respond to emails more quickly than when I'm at court and on the road, and that leads to a little bit less stress in the day to day job.”

Mediations are being done by phone and some court matters are also being conducted by phone conferencing. “The most I had in one matter was a seven way telephone link. It’s a lot easier for the lawyers than the magistrate because we all know each other's voices.”

While the number of child protection matters is down, which she suspects is because there are fewer DHS people doing home visits, youth crime is up, mostly in the form of teenagers breaching their COVID-related curfews.

The downside is clients feeling alienated from the court process. “With pre-existing clients it has been less of an issue but new clients keep saying they can’t wait to meet you in person and actually see the judge.”

Adjournments for child protection matters have been drawn out to June or even longer “which is an extraordinarily long time for a parent not to have contact with their child. 

 “If having to encounter the Family Court wasn’t intimidating enough, not knowing if or when your matter is going to be heard after waiting months just makes it so much tougher for clients.”

Allan SwanAllan Swan, director, Estate Planning Equation – Preventative Law

For estate planning lawyer Allan Swan, slow internet, missing social interactions with colleagues and witnessing wills and powers of attorney in a time of physical distancing have been the biggest problems with moving to a working from home mode. 

All four of his firm are now working from their home offices, using telephone conferences, Zoom or email to keep in touch with clients. “The clients don’t like it as much, but I think they appreciate that we don’t have much choice.” Internet is noticeably slower in his suburb, Mr Swan says, “whereas a friend who is working in a city office says he’s noticed a big improvement there.”

Work has dropped off by 10 to 20 per cent, but as yet no one has had to reduce their hours. “We’re not as busy as we normally would be and we’ve had clients say that they’ll contact us once this is over.”

The biggest problem is getting wills and powers of attorney signed under the COVID-19 restrictions. “For terminally ill clients we’ve had to resort to standing outside their closed window and watching them sign in the presence of a witness, and then that person gives us the document at the front door and we go back to the window and sign it as they watch.”

“We’re confident that meets the requirements because we’re in visual and audio contact with the clients but not actually breathing the same air.”

Mr Swan says the pandemic restrictions may spur a change in such legal procedures to accept more electronic communication.“Estate planning is still a very paper driven process. The law is having to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”

For himself though, he will be happy to go back to working with his colleagues at the office. “I do miss the face-to-face communication. One of the reasons I love my job is the interpersonal interaction.”■


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