We have got out of problems before

How does your new work pattern affect you as a solicitor?

As a mother of five I know exactly how difficult it is for so many parents with small children around whilst they also have to work full time and have no childcare help. My youngest two, twins, are both in their final year at Bristol University, but made it home for Easter. So that is extremely easy for me compared with my solicitor daughter and her husband in London who are working from home with two children of 4 and 2 years old as their nursery is closed.

I am one of the luckiest people in this terrible and difficult situation as I still have work coming in (so far), I am not ill, I already worked from home and the youngest children are at university stage. I have not had to issue any legal proceedings since the lockdown and most of my work is done by email and telephone. It is possible the situation may delay some legal proceedings in the pipeline but the clients are aware of that.

In 1994 the internet was emerging as a useful business tool and I decided I would set up my own solicitors’ firm from home using on-line materials.  Part of my practice even back at Slaughter and May (solicitors) in the 1980s had been IT/Computer law and data protection so I was always reasonably familiar with technology even then. So the 2020 Covid-19 lock down has not affected my work patterns. Even in 1998/99 when I was writing the first edition of Business, the Internet and the Law (a Bloomsbury looseleaf which  I still update over 20 years later)  I covered home working and the legal issues relevant to it.

How does it affect your clients?

The Coronavirus Act 2020 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 made under it have had massive damaging effects on so many businesses and individuals. I have had some clients with questions about termination of longstanding contracts where they have no income coming in and cannot pay. Other clients work in IT and seem quite busy so it is a variable picture. However, I remember (just) the 1970s crash, definitely remember the 1990s crash, never mind 2008 and have had a very vivid picture of the 1929 crash from my late father and the great depression which followed which affected my grandparents’ families so badly. So I know we have got out of problems before.  

It may feel in the week leading up to Easter that the words Jesus uttered on the cross when dying  ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani’ (My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?) are apt, but we will get over this particularly by helping others who are less fortunate.

Are there any aspects of mental health that are being affected?

Although my daughters and I are solicitors, I am from a family of psychiatrists. My father was one, as is my brother who works for the NHS in Leeds. My sister is a clinical psychologist. So I hear a lot from my siblings about the effects of this on people’s mental health.  Much depends on your own make-up. As a teenager I was so shy I would cross the road to avoid speaking to a neighbour so we do joke that this time in 2020 is made for me. My student sons complained I had not left my local areas all of last August (they wanted the house to themselves presumably for parties with university friends).   I used to give about 50 public law talks a year and gave 1700 of them, many all day long in the UK and abroad. I went to Iran, Nigeria, Dubai, Trinidad and all over Europe, never mind sitting on lots of committees and attending client meetings. However two years ago I decided to give those up as they were the hardest work of all involving lots of travelling and advising clients by email and phone was easier.  I felt in my 50s I could strip out the areas of work which were least profitable and I did not enjoy as much.  I had been giving legal courses since 1991.

Some people feed off others and are very out-going. I am happiest alone. I do not think there has been a day of my life when I have wanted more contact with others than I have had. I even bought an island in the Pacific off Panama in my 40s which I enjoyed for 10 years camping and surviving for brief periods on it often alone, sometimes with the children – principally because there was no one on it and it was my ambition aged 10 to buy an island and be alone. No man is an island, Donne said, but some of us are more suited to being solitary than others. Yet again I feel extremely lucky.

That is no comfort to all those people whose normal lives and family events and jobs and lives are ruined by both the virus and the UK’s choices and decision not to go down the Swedish route.

I hear from my siblings who are professionals in the field that there have been very damaging effects on many of their patients’ mental health. Even something like full blown OCD is hardly helped by a requirement to wash your hands a lot for those for whom it manifests itself by hand washing. Those with anxiety find all their worst fears have come to pass. Those whose only relief from abusive family members is school or work have lost that in many cases.  People who go out a lot and suddenly may not do so feel very cooped up and angry.

What positive aspects are there, that may affect how you choose to work, or how you think the wider field should consider working, in the future?

I will certainly continue to work from home. We may find others do too although it is too early to say what permanent changes will be seen.

What ideas for best practice have you developed or read about, in response to any of these factors?

For solicitors taking on a new client in the current situation when they cannot even have a first face to face meeting they need to continue to identify their client. Money laundering legislation continues to apply and it is possible to undertake enhanced ID checks. Do lots of due diligence on new clients and follow the rules to the letter for those who are solicitors or otherwise subject to that legislation.

Susan is the author of Commercial Agency Agreements: Law and Practice, E-Commerce and Convergence: A Guide to the Law of Digital Media, Joint Ventures and Shareholders' Agreements, Beswick and Wine: Buying and Selling Private Companies and Businesses, Buying and Selling Insolvent Companies and Businesses, Commercial Contracts: A Practical Guide to Standard Terms

Written by Susan Singleton

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