It seems that with the start of September, the current topic of conversation is about returning to the office or at least returning in a more regular and structured way. Many firms have developed an agile working policy for life after the pandemic to utilise the benefits of both working from home and being in the office.
For the family team, we have enjoyed a steady return to the office over the last few months and I have certainly enjoyed a return to Pret! September also heralds the start of what is usually a busy period for family lawyers. The long summer holidays have come to a close, children are back at school and many people simply have more head space to be able to think about their future. Sitting at my desk back in Bedford Row, I have reflected on how my job has evolved over the last 18 months. For a start I now have a laptop that seems to be permanently attached to me, forever to be my travelling companion. However, there are some excellent positives:
- My scribbled (but beloved) manuscript ‘to-do’ list has gone in the shredder for the last time. We are now wonderfully, finally and fully, paperless. It is such a better way to work.
- I have spent the last 18 years of my career heaving suitcases containing numerous lever arch files of papers behind me for court hearings and conferences. Now, the Judge just gets emailed a bundle, which is beautifully paginated, searchable and means you can find a particular document in a flash.
- I genuinely ‘see’ clients on a more regular basis. Pre-Covid, we would see clients for a first meeting and then the telephone would take over. Now that everyone is far more comfortable with technology, we invariably pop on a Zoom/Teams call which I think has really improved the way we can connect with our clients.
- I see other members of the team based in our different offices so much more. We have more organic discussions as we can be more flexible with fewer time or geography restraints, no longer dashing across London for a meeting.
- Many of our court applications are now issued online, meaning they are processed more quickly, thereby improving the speed of a case, which is always to be recommended. The family court has really grasped the use of technology and it is only making the system better and more efficient (with a few teething problems of course!).
- Supervision has benefited. We share screens when explaining a document or using version control to keep track of documents, due to being electronic. The biggest bonus however for our team I suspect is that everyone is no longer trying to read and interpret my scrawled amendments at the side of a hard copy letter.
Of course, as with anything, there have been some difficulties along the way. Online hearings haven’t always worked and many people still do not feel confident using technology. It is certainly not always the best form of communication for determining the outcome of people’s family lives but I have always thought that the key to survival is not about who is the fittest… but who can adapt to different circumstances. Knowing that I have a fair few years to go in this job, I really do want to build on the positives and perhaps try and fine tune the negatives.
I have also reflected on our team. We like each other, we get on and we have missed each other. But I feel that, despite the lack of in-person camaraderie, we have done a good job at still being a team. It is still quite odd getting delivered a lovely box of food and eating it in front of your colleagues over a laptop screen. However, we have certainly had some really good conversations and I think I have got to know a lot more about the home lives of the people that I work with (often having little chats with their partners as they bring in a cup of tea or seeing what chilled out position Emma’s cat is enjoying on a particular day). It has certainly not been perfect and I don’t think it does substitute being in person but our return to the office hasn’t felt as though we have been apart for 18 months. I am proud of how we have adapted and what we have achieved during the pandemic to keep our team ethos alive.
So as I reflect and look ahead to the start of a slightly new chapter of enjoying the best of both worlds (working from home and in the office) I am pleased with our improved practice. We of course need to fine tune the benefits to make us all better family lawyers, better able to service our clients and be more efficient in what we do on an everyday basis. Overall though, my reflection on the last year of substantial IT change has been a positive one.