Law firms continue to be an essential business or undertaking, and are not required to close due to COVID-19. And rightly so, as our experience this month has been that we are needed more now than ever before, and we can continue to provide legal services despite everything the virus is throwing in our way.
We are extremely fortunate that our operations rely on legal knowledge and skill, combined with legal processes and client care, attributes that we can access from anywhere with our brains, our phones, a laptop and wifi.
Our firm is progressive and agile enough to pivot quickly, so our operations became remote a little over a fortnight ago. We knew that we could transition with some modifications to accommodate the changes and restrictions that were coming quick and fast, with almost no disruption to the claims we are progressing for our clients.
Our greatest concern was not our own ability to keep things moving, but the capacity of other firms, mediators, defendants, medical practices, government departments and experts to read what would be necessary in the future (now the current!), and work with us to continue to achieve outcomes for clients.
It has been fascinating to see the huge variety of responses to the crisis. Some, like us, have recognised early the need for flexibility and adaptability, and have moved quickly to consider how they could continue business operations under the new situation. We have experienced the opposite as well. Not everyone copes with fast-paced change, and in some cases we have had to lead the way and bring others along with us.
I confess we’ve had a few frustrating moments, as some people remained in denial and took longer than others to realise that things were changing fast, and they could not continue with situation normal. With time though everyone has realised that they have no option but to become more flexible if they are also to survive the disruptions required to manage the pandemic.
Some resistance came not from denial, but from lack of imagination or perhaps lack of practice with problem-solving.
Almost as soon as travel restrictions were announced, we had defendant lawyers wanting to cancel several mediations which had been scheduled to occur in March. This was a knee-jerk reaction to the sudden government restrictions, and a desire to protect everyone’s health and safety. To their credit, those same lawyers were very responsive when we put alternative proposals to them. In almost no time we worked with mediators, barristers and defendant lawyers to completely restructure the mediation format and in fact in the short period since restrictions were introduced we have had five different mediations proceed in a variety of permutations to meet the clients’ needs as well as accommodating social distancing requirements. It’s new, it’s different, but it works, and it gives clients the chance to resolve their claims at a time when they need certainty more than anything else.
The ability for law firms like ours to continue operations is critical also because of the potential implications to our clients’ mental health if we have to shut down. As we know, many people who went into this pandemic mentally well are in many cases struggling to cope with uncertainty, anxiety and social isolation, and the disruption to life as we knew it. We have hundreds of existing clients whose mental health is affected by past trauma before COVID-19 hit – it’s obvious that those people will have those negative feelings magnified exponentially. It has given our clients great comfort to know that with everything else around them grinding to a halt, the claims that we are helping them with are proceeding full steam ahead. We have been proactive about remaining in touch with clients to assure them that we have got everything in hand. I would genuinely worry for the impact on our clients’ mental wellbeing if legal operations ground to a halt.
We have had a record number of new client inquiries this past month – this may be due to people having much more time on their hands during self-isolation, or they have fewer distractions available to them to prevent them from ruminating on issues that they have suppressed for years. Perhaps people are afraid for their own health, and want to act now whilst they still can. Whatever the explanation, our staff are busier than ever helping people who have made contact with us for the first time about potential claims.
Interestingly, we regularly help many people submit Reports of Serious Abuse to the Defence Ombudsman, and the feedback from the Defence Ombudsman is similar to our experience in that they also have been inundated this past month with many more Reports than they would usually expect. Clearly, something about the crisis is motivating particularly abuse survivors to overcome their hesitance and speak up for the first time about their experiences.
We know from our experience assisting survivors that making the decision to come forward with disclosures of the abuse takes great courage. If something about the crisis is giving them that courage, it would be devastating for them if law firms with the right skills and mindset to look after them were not able to help.
looking after our team
The final aspect that we have had to address in our COVID-19 journey so far is the wellbeing of our staff. We take great pride in the level of service and care we provide to our clients, and the only way we can deliver this is through the absolute commitment and compassion of every one of our staff. This level of client care, and the regular dealing with clients’ traumatic stories can take its toll on us under normal circumstances, and what we are dealing with now is anything but normal.
Now that we are all working remotely, we have had to consider how we continue to support and care for each other, and remain connected. We know that some staff have other issues they are simultaneously coping with such as partners at home or out of work, babies and toddlers to be cared for or primary-schoolers to be entertained and educated, health conditions which affect their immunity or friends or relatives affected by the virus. We recognise that our staff, like the rest of Australia and indeed people the world over, have a lot on their plate. It is important that we support them in whatever ways we can (flexible hours, increased support, more regular catch-ups, etc).
These are not easy issues, but they are critical to our ongoing success. We absolutely recognise that having healthy and supported staff working together apart is the only way we will continue to deliver the exceptional service that we almost (but don’t!) take for granted as our trademark.
Donaldson Law has a number of defined values that we treasure, but the one that is coming to the fore and that we are all most in need of at the moment is “Be Kind”. As a firm, and as individuals, we remind ourselves that we all are doing our best to cope in unchartered waters, and letting our frustrations out on others internally or externally is unhelpful and counter-productive.
We have taken the view that if we can remember in all of our dealings – with clients, with other lawyers, with each other – that a little extra patience, a kind word, a thoughtful email, an unexpected text or phonecall to say thanks – these are the things that will help us all not only survive the disruption of COVID-19, but to come out stronger on the other side.