Courses for Horses? Family Law Practice After Lockdown
Updated: Aug 14
With businesses in New Zealand soon reopening and moving into some sort of normal at Level 2, what will family law practice look like for you?
Will you be rushing back to a practice that is the same as it was pre-lockdown or will the new “normal” look quite different for you?
Has lockdown given you time to reflect on the parts of your practice that serve you (emotionally, mentally, financially and professionally) and are aligned with your values and the parts that don’t? Perhaps you’ve had some new realisations about how you work best and the things you don’t miss about pre-lockdown practice
You may have guessed from some of my lockdown blogs that I am incredibly excited about the opportunities the pandemic has given family lawyers for changing how we practice. I, for one, hope we don’t go back to practising in the ways we did pre-lockdown. Here are a few of my hopes for change…
We redesign the law office – I visited a large law firm once and immediately felt unease at how money and sterility simultaneously oozed from every part of its reception and public area. If I, used to hanging out in law firms, felt such unease how would clients feel?
I recognised the artist who had painted the extensive art work on display and gulped as I did a mental tally of what I thought it had cost. I suspected clients may wonder too about the relationship between those expensive works and the level of their fees. I then was able, in a rare breach of firm policy, to go into the bowels of the firm to where the staff worked. I was expecting more of what I had already seen but the contrast was startling. Tiny, crammed in desks with everyone working on top of one another. No expensive art down here for the worker bees to enjoy.
My hope is that, if they haven't already, law offices change to be more about a warm, welcoming client experience and a pleasant workplace experience for those working there.
Judging by the response I had to my recent blog, “The End of the Law Office?”, it seems I wasn’t alone in questioning the need for a physical office. I suspect that many law firms, having had a taste of working from home, may release some of their space in favour of doing away with offices and merely retaining meeting rooms or even go entirely virtual. I have already taken the leap and given notice on my leased office and negotiated the use of meeting rooms and a copier/printer for when I need to see people in person.
We actually use technology to give us the lifestyles (and workstyles) we crave – I remember as a kid, hearing about these new things called computers and how they were going to revolutionise the workplace and allow us all to have more time and better lifestyles.
The beneficial impact of technology on our family law practices cannot be overstated but what about the impact on our lifestyles? For many, technology has meant increased work hours, demands on our time and pressures as we respond to a bombardment of constant emails, text messages and work related phone calls. Technology can free us from a lot of the dross in our daily work. I just don’t believe we have truly let it until now and we haven’t incorporated it into our lives with appropriate boundaries. This may be due to a lack of interest in, or even fear of, new technology. It may be because we perceive it as being too expensive or simply because we get into a “this is how we have always done it” rut and don’t feel the need to look for better ways.
There are a wealth of apps and programmes now that can do everything from scheduling your appointments to automatically preparing your client documents and other processes. We just have to be willing to seek them out, try them out for size and put appropriate boundaries in place so we don’t become slaves to it. For example, I rarely give my mobile phone number out and am appalling at answering it. My attitude to it is that the phone is for my convenience, not other people’s. I answer it and use it when it suits me, rather than have it demanding my attention and time. I take the same approach to emails and messages – putting boundaries in place as to when I look at them and creating expectations in others around this. I hope lockdown has given us a taste of the harmonious and beneficial marriage that can exist between technology and boundaries.
We have more flexible work practices – some of us will be craving the return to the office and the social interaction this provides. Others will be dreading leaving their havens at home where they can switch in and out of social contact as suits them. My hope is we adapt our practices so that a “courses for horses” approach is taken so that the work practices for ourselves and the individuals in our firms are tailored to what works best for each individual and their workstyle. Perhaps you will work from home full time. Maybe you’ll carve out two days a week where you don’t endure the commute and work from home. Perhaps you’ll work different hours or just go in for meetings that need to be done in person...the options are as varied as we are as individuals.
We trust more – when I have talked about staff working from home in the past, I have often been asked “how can you trust them to do their work?”. It always makes me sad to hear this - what is the quality of any relationship in the absence of trust? My hope is family lawyers have learned through lockdown to get past this and move forward, trusting our staff to use the qualities we chose them for having and to be the professionals we employed them to be!
We are more responsive to what works for individual clients – Just as we and our team members function optimally in different ways, so too do our clients. I now look back to pre-lockdown with a sense of embarrassment and incredulity that I always did collaborative meetings and mediations in person and that I always met clients for the first time in person at my office. I now have clients saying they prefer to carry on meeting by Zoom after lockdown ends. As a result, I am aiming to be even more consciously adopting a greater “courses for horses” approach for my clients, creating a bespoke experience for each client that meets their needs and having discussions about this throughout the course of our working relationship.
Court Becomes THE Alternative Dispute Resolution Process- lockdown shone a light on the inflexibility of court processes and operations and how adaptive other processes, such as Collaborative Practice and mediation, can be. Using those processes, my practice didn't grind to a standstill and my clients were able to make progress in their matters while many with court proceedings came to a halt. At a time when we have more dispute resolution processes than ever before, we surely can match up each of our individual clients with a process (outside of Court) that suits them and their families.
We leave no person behind – I loved seeing how, as family lawyers, we came together to support one another and to maintain our informal discussions and connection when we were no longer able to do this during coffee catch ups, or by having a chat after a mediation or while we waited outside the courtroom doors on a busy list day. I hope this kindness and humanity towards one another continues to flourish and that we don’t forget to have unscheduled moments where we pick up the phone or invite a colleague to a Zoom call just to chew the fat.
Our teams use greater creativity and initiative – another thing I noticed during lockdown is how family lawyers often spoke of how some of their team members had created new initiatives or aspects to their roles in response to the situation they and their firm found themselves in during the pandemic lockdown. I can guarantee those employees have job security if the rubber hits the road in the Covid economic hit. It is this creativity and initiative that will help family lawyer's practices soar, rather than sink, in the Covid economic hit. My hope is that family lawyers continue to harness and encourage this creativity and allow our people the space and permission to develop new ways of doing things.
How do you think family law practice is going to evolve? What are your hopes? Are you making changes in your practice as a result of some lockdown lessons you've had? I'd love to hear your thoughts over in The Law Lighthouse Group's private Facebook page.