FT - Robert Botkai partner Winckworth Sherwood

As we approach the August Bank Holiday I thought it opportune for a moment of reflection on what has been a momentous few months.

Petrol retailers have responded brilliantly to the challenges of Covid-19. As a sector you have demonstrated flexibility. You have changed product ranges. You have generally remained open and supported your local communities. This will not be forgotten by customers and I genuinely believe that the sector will emerge from this terribly difficult time all the stronger.

So what about us? Yes the lawyers. You may not care in which case stop reading now!

We are a law firm with 350 partners and employees. Most of us are based in our London Bridge office, just behind the Borough Market. Our meeting rooms are usually fully booked with client meetings, seminars, conferences and social events. How could we possibly work without our offices?

In the context of disaster planning, 2 appalling terrorist attacks in our immediate vicinity gave us a dress rehearsal for what was to come as we were evacuated from our building for several days. Whilst our disaster planning proved to be robust we were able to take learnings from these episodes and put additional measures in place. Little did we know what we were preparing for.

We had already embarked in a roll out of laptops for staff to replace desktop computers. This programme became a priority in early March as we ensured that everyone was equipped to work from home. The immediate issue was the speed of our systems which had to cope with over 300 people working remotely at the same time.

We embraced video calls. My own team (Commercial Real Estate and Licensing) resolved to “meet” daily and we still do so every morning. This has been really important in maintaining proper contact, discussing issues and replicating so far as possible the chats we would be having in the office.

So much has changed about the way we work and I confess that we have been shoved unceremoniously into modernising some of or practices. We did of course have electronic filing but Covid has forced us to reduce our lawyerly dependence on all things paper. We have had to stop and think at every stage of a transaction. Do we need this on hard copy? Does the client need to come in to sign?

I have personally found that the change to video calls has meant we have actually seen more of clients and instructing officers than was previously the case. Regular contact means we get to know each other better and our service can become more bespoke to the needs of the particular client.

Our office is open albeit with a reduced capacity. There has been no stampede to get back in. Most of our lawyers have learnt to adapt to home working and have appreciated the time saving with no commute. Working hours are more flexible. I don’t care what time the individual lawyers are sitting at their desk, dining table or deckchair so long as they are accessible to clients when the clients need them.

Many of us are fitter, with more time to exercise and eat better. Some of us have learnt new skills or dusted down old ones. We have spent more time with our family and other animals.

Property transactions can move faster now as most (not all) firms become more adapt at working digitally. In my experience lawyers on the other side of a transaction are more accessible. Very few documents need to be physically signed and we can expect further reform which will allow deeds and possibly even wills to be signed without use of a quill.

Licensing has evolved too. Previous articles cover the numerous new rules and regulations but a major change has been on line hearings. These are hosted by a Council usually on Teams or Zoom. In general they have worked well. I would however strongly oppose adopting on line hearings as the new norm. Whilst they have been successful in allowing clients to apply for new licences and vary existing during the pandemic, they tend to be very rigid format and do not easily allow for a discussion. I personally miss the drama of the Council Chamber and hope that this returns soon.

I am sure and very much hope that from September we will see an increased return to the office. This is important on so many levels. We work very much as a team and whilst the video calls have helped they are no substitute for the constant communication we have with each other in the office environment. Our trainees and other younger lawyers have missed out too. They learn from the rest of the team by sitting with them. We miss our colleagues in company commercial, planning, employment and litigation.

What will be the new norm? I suspect that some of our lawyers will return to the office full time. But many will have tasted the benefits of working from home. We have always had the ability to work from home when necessary. I expect a change of emphasis to working in the office when necessary. We will have team hub spaces rather than personalised office kingdoms. All those important lever arch files around our desks. Well we haven’t needed them for the last 5 months…

There is an acceptance that we have changed and in some ways for the better. We have been pushed into new practices that make us more efficient. But we miss each other and we miss meeting with clients. We miss the social interactions that we have with clients and in particular with the forecourt retailers and can’t wait for this to resume.

I asked our team to message me with the one aspect that they miss most about being in the office. Sadly responses included “the printer” and “he air conditioning” but most admitted that it’s about “the people”.

But hey, it’s now 12.30pm - I must pop down to Homebase to get a gas refill for the barbecue….please don’t tell anyone!