2020 has been an odd year for us all but on 1 September BH&O LLP turns two years old. Like other lockdown birthdays it’s hard to know how to celebrate but it’s an anniversary we want to mark.
In 2020 we have, without question, all been tested. As lawyers we have had to change our modus operandi and adjust, very quickly, to remote working. At BH&O we decided when we opened to invest heavily in our IT systems. At times we have questioned that decision but during lockdown they have come into their own. We can all work remotely on the same desktop that we see in the office, and we have the same access to our case management system, time recording and billing systems.
In addition, we have had to embrace paperless working. Some of us were already a fair distance down that road but others were not quite so keen. In lockdown everyone at BH&O has had to work without access to paper bundles and files. That is undoubtedly harder for the advocates amongst us. Doing hearings pre-lockdown with a bundle on an iPad and a laptop for notes was one thing, but add to that a second laptop (or desktop) in order to undertake a hearing by Teams / Zoom etc, and a phone, in case your wifi drops out, and it all becomes harder.
Doing hearings in this way requires new skills too. Of course, there is the endless ‘will this link work, is the wifi good enough, can my client access a laptop…’ type issues; but also hearings done remotely are exhausting – much more draining than in-person hearings. And the admin that surrounds sorting out remote hearings feels so much more time consuming than simply turning up to court.
We have done some hybrid hearings too and those have separate challenges. There are still all the same technology issues as some parties and advocates are remote even when others go to court in person; and then there are the practical issues of keeping advocates, clients and Judges safe.
At this stage it’s impossible to predict when we might all return to our pre-lockdown normal of attending court in person as the default arrangement.
In the first few weeks of lockdown all our new client enquiries stopped. It is totally understandable – the divorces were on hold, the assets were impossible to value, the Local Authority was not sending out social workers to visit families, schools were not seeing children.
As a firm we undertake a lot of publicly funded work for vulnerable clients and it is those clients we have worried about most. Whether the cases relate to domestic abuse or child protection the concerns did not stop, but the access to professionals ceased overnight. For the last couple of months we have been seeing big increases in those kinds of cases, with no sign of any reduction.
Another challenge has been keeping in touch with our team. We are all sociable beings and we have all chosen to work at a firm with a strong team ethos. We like each other and we like to support each other. We all miss being in the office with people around us. We have had to find other ways to stay in touch – we have weekly team meetings and weekly supervision sessions by zoom; we have very active WhatsApp groups and we call each other when we need to. But it’s not the same and most of us are itching to get back to the office properly.
During lockdown we have recruited staff. Two new solicitors have started (Amanda Stopps and Ruth Sharon) and a third starts in two weeks. We are recruiting new support staff and a paralegal. We are pleased not to have furloughed anyone and we are now delighted to be expanding.
Are things now getting back to normal? The office is now open to staff and to clients for appointments with us, with experts or to attend court hearings. We are not open to drop-ins and that may be the case for many months to come. All our solicitors are offering appointments by phone or video and we are all taking on new cases. Our therapists have continued to support our clients throughout and are taking on new referrals.
So, in some ways getting to our two year anniversary during all this feels remarkable. Ruth, Irena and I are very grateful for our team and their commitment to our clients. The party might be on hold but when we get back to normal there will certainly be one.