Posted by Milad Shojaei, a county court advocate at LPC Law and strategy & engagement director at Legal Futures Associate Casedo
Having worked at a legal tech start-up for over a year, I’ve seen first-hand the profession’s resistance to change and the broader implications this could have. Reluctant to adapt and confined to its traditional form, I was not confident of its ability to operate remotely once Covid-19 hit.
It has been a bumpy road and I have witnessed its effects as a county court advocate, trying to forge a career in law during the emergence of the virus.
The impact has hit at all levels, from the most senior practitioners to the most junior, and there have rightly been concerns for mental health. According to lawyer healthcare charity LawCare, coronavirus-related issues currently account for 40% of the helpline’s traffic.
“The main thing people are calling about is pressure to go into work and not being allowed to work from home,” said Elizabeth Rimmer, LawCare’s chief executive.
The courts remained open, attempting to conduct “business as usual” well into March, and remote hearings only really became the norm in the county court once lockdown was initiated on 23 March. Although many county courts have now either closed completely or are only conducting hearings remotely, many others have remained open throughout the pandemic in order to deal with urgent business.
As a result, advocates and other legal practitioners (who are deemed essential workers, as they are required to support the administration of justice) have been attending hearings throughout the pandemic.
I myself appeared at Clerkenwell County Court on 23 March to conduct a couple of return of goods hearings, before the court was in a position to conduct routine business remotely.
The courts have only been able to remain open to the degree that they have and to conduct routine business for as long as they did, because of the nature of the legal profession and those supporting it. There is a deep-rooted belief within all of those who play a part in the justice system that their work is of fundamental importance to society, which drives them to make personal sacrifices and overcome huge obstacles.
This mindset, alongside the profession’s competitive nature, has made the situation more critical. Many have trained for the challenges presented by the traditional operation of the legal sector but may lack the technical competence necessary to adapt productively. Does it take a crisis to instigate change?
Worse yet, the changes have exacerbated the existing challenges I have encountered as a new entrant to the Bar. Securing pupillage was an already stressful objective. With the drastic drop in work, after the courts closed, my chances at the self-employed bar are now slimmer than ever.
Bar Council research has suggested that 83% of young barristers will not last a year, and I have already felt the effects, with all but one of my pupillage applications falling by the wayside due to lockdown. I am not alone – the latest Bar Council figures are that 27% of chambers have suspended recruitment of pupils for this year or next, with a further 26% keeping their pupillage plans under review.
There are other negative consequences: chambers may have to reduce the number of opportunities for young lawyers or pay them less. This is significant, as in May 2019 the Bar Standards Board introduced fairer pupillage awards in line with the Living Wage Foundation, a policy aimed at assisting those entering the profession. I hope that we will not have to go back to how it was before.
Lockdown has also highlighted issues regarding supervision. Many junior lawyers have shared my concerns at the ‘business as usual’ model and it is no surprise that some employers have failed to make adequate adjustments or adaptations.
A Young Legal Aid Lawyers survey found that 45% felt that they received less supervision and support as a result of Covid-19. Exposure to senior colleagues is vital and the law firms that had the foresight to embrace collaboration tools have managed better.
In the weeks after lockdown, LPC Law introduced a series of updates to its databases to better facilitate remote hearings. Prior to the introduction of the remote hearing protocol, all remote hearings were conducted by telephone through one of the approved providers, but now BT MeetMe, Skype and Court Video Link are commonplace.
LPC Law consulted its advocates as they gained experience using these new means of conducting hearings and updated both client and advocate facing online facilities to make the specific information required for each method readily available.
It is remarkable how quickly the pandemic has accelerated the legal sector’s adoption of video conferencing, although I fear the occupational stress that technophobe lawyers will endure as a result.
As lawyers look to return to the prior semblance of normality as soon as practical, the question beckons, was normal good enough? The traditional way of doing things has many shortcomings and the law requires significant reform, both in its culture and how it operates.
Covid-19 has seen a burst of welcome innovation and I accept that the changes implemented by our unreceptive profession may show signs of improved innovation, but it is imperative that this change is not temporary.