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COVID-19 UK: Professional Services - Risk issues around working remotely: people

  • Market Insight 27 April 2020 27 April 2020
  • UK & Europe

  • Coronavirus

The sudden transition to remote working presents new management, supervision and mental health challenges for law firms. This briefing suggests some practical steps we might take to manage those risks, and keep our teams together, even when physically apart.

COVID-19 UK: Professional Services - Risk issues around working remotely: people

Management and supervision

Like all business owners, law firm managers are striving to protect their firms from the financial impact of Covid-19.  The rapidly changing legal environment also creates new areas of risk.

Client service

Some firms have furloughed staff, reduced working hours or made redundancies.  These measures give rise to numerous employment issues – see further our Clyde Guide – and to potential resourcing issues when work comes in.  Managers will inevitably worry about meeting clients' expectations.  

Firms also face potential surges in staff absence - both fee earners and support staff - due to sickness.  In addition to Covid-19 itself, staff may be less available to work due to caring responsibilities.

Some ways to mitigate these risks include:

  • Honest communication with clients.  Most clients are facing similar difficulties themselves and understand that their lawyers' working patterns (like their own) may have to change in the short-term, but that this does not have to lead to a drop in work quality.
  • Regularly monitoring staff availability and being realistic about how much work team members can handle.  Remember that circumstances may change over time.
  • To pre-empt absences, ensuring that deadlines are tracked in multiple diaries and that work is filed centrally.  Share information about different working practices within teams: for example, where do junior lawyers store their to-do lists? Do partners keep spreadsheets of their files?  Ensure that trusted colleagues have access to these pieces of information.
  • Understanding the altered working patterns within teams and agreeing how they should be managed: are certain members of the team working reduced or unusual hours? Ensure that emails can be forwarded when a team member is unavailable and use out of office responses where needed.

Training

Training may not seem the most immediate priority but is an important tool in combating risk.  As work levels decrease for some business lines, firms are looking to redeploy fee earners into busier areas.  This can be extremely useful both for the firm's productivity and for the job security of the lawyers concerned, but creates the risk of error where lawyers act outside their usual areas of expertise.  

Rapid changes to legislation and regulation (for example in the areas of employment and tax) as well as court filing and attendance procedures mean that it would be very easy to fall behind, particularly for firms without the benefit of well-resourced risk and knowledge management teams, and may lead to mistakes.  Firms should draw on all available resources including advice from the Law Society and SRA to keep their lawyers up to date.

Until this crisis, working from home was a growing trend but it remained the case that some law firm staff had never worked from home.  These people in particular will need support in adapting their ways of working.  Demands on firms' IT departments are huge, but good training and support is crucial to keeping law firms running smoothly and safely.  

Confidentiality and security regarding data and documents will remain a key risk factor for firms to manage (as to which, see our recent briefing here). 

Staff morale 

All firms recognise that keeping productivity high in these challenging times is vital.  It can be hard for senior management to strike the correct balance between maintaining output levels – and hence the all-important cash flow – and supporting staff who may be feeling overwhelmed. Partners and senior lawyers are juggling numerous competing responsibilities at the moment, but must not forget that active line management is more important than ever, not only to promote the wellbeing of junior lawyers but also to minimise risk.  The support, encouragement and feedback provided by good line managers on a one-to-one basis will help to ensure that potential problems are identified and dealt with at an early stage.

When working remotely, junior staff may find it much harder to meet expectations or to seek additional guidance when they need it.  Clear and regular communication is key here, whether by phone, video conference, WhatsApp or other secure channels. 

Mental health

The difficulties and uncertainties caused by Covid-19 are affecting everyone in different ways.  We all have to find our own ways of coping, but some useful tips include:

  • Keeping to a daily routine, with set times for working and relaxation;
  • Getting outside once a day;
  • Working at the same desk every day, keeping the rest of your home as work-free as possible;
  • Scheduling regular times to communicate with friends and family;
  • Being open and honest with your line manager about your particular circumstances;
  • Ensuring you have a support network to reach out to for help when you need it; and
  • Being kind to yourself.  Even the most robust and resilient of us will have good and bad days in these peculiar times: a bad day does not mean that you are a failure.

Line managers should not be afraid to let their employees know that sometimes they struggle too.  Showing vulnerability can be a sign of strength not weakness and is a very important ingredient in honest and supportive working relationships.

The challenges arising from this sudden transition from an office-based to a remote-working profession should not be under-estimated, but with trust and communication the people-related risks and difficulties can be navigated.  

We will look in more detail at some of the legal and practical risks arising in relation to client work in our next briefing.

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