Practices have reported similar issues, including financial pressures, cashflow and workflow planning issues, a need for operational changes, remote and flexible working, and virtual/remote client interactions and file management.
The research consisted of an online survey, interviews with a cross-section of practices, and consultation with the Society and with other professional bodies that represent sectors and businesses impacted by COVID-19.
More than 2,350 solicitors were emailed and, based on at least one partner’s response per firm, that meant a pool of 1,672 potential respondents. With 534 responses received, there was a margin of error of 3.5% at a 95% confidence level (which means that survey statistics are within 3.5 percentage points of the real population value 95% of the time).
Interviews were also held with a number of representative and regulatory bodies that were in a position to provide insights relevant to the impact of COVID on the legal sector in Ireland, and internationally, including the Bar of Ireland, the CCBE, and the International Bar Association.
Representatives of the business sectors affected included the Dublin City Local Enterprise Office and Fáilte Ireland.
Most respondents identified as a ‘small practice’ or ‘sole practitioner’ (45% and 43% respectively). The largest proportion of respondents was based in Dublin (37%).
At the time the survey was carried out, normal business hours were operating for the large majority of respondents (84%). Those working remotely amounted to 7%, those working from the office were at 36%, and 57% of respondents indicated a mix of both.
Responses and solutions
The responses indicated that the pandemic has had a significant impact on practices, especially from both operational and financial perspectives.
Despite that, the sector has proven agile and adaptable. Traditional ways of working were neither appropriate or possible during the pandemic, and a good base has been established from which firms can continue and strengthen innovative work practices.
Solutions introduced by practices that would have been unlikely 18 months ago are now accepted as commonplace, and are set to continue. Some responses to the new working environment have been quite transformative, including remote working, remote client interaction, virtual hearings, and paper reduction/going paperless.
Looking to recent and future supports:
- The level of use of various Government schemes (74%) demonstrates a dependence on these for business continuity,
- Future supports asked of Government are financial and, in the main, consist of a continuation of existing schemes and grants,
- Future supports asked of the Law Society are knowledge-based (such as training and information), and financial (PC fee reduction),
- The digitisation trend is set to continue and, as such, initiatives, schemes and supports should follow this trend, and
- The level of preparedness (planned or otherwise) facilitated the speed of response, and should continue to ensure that the profession is in a position to respond quickly and appropriately to the aftermath of the pandemic, and to any future business disruptions (as a result of the pandemic or other future trends).
The report’s recommendations are based on member feedback, and they indicate what could be done in future, taking account of the experiences of the profession since March 2020.
In terms of public affairs and collaboration, the Law Society should:
- Liaise with decision-makers in Government departments and agencies. The Society should avail of opportunities through existing representative groups and relationships at Government level to communicate key data from the Business Recovery Report to stress the importance of Government supports to the survival and recovery of the sector,
- Use existing sector structures nationally and at EU level, and consider opportunities to work jointly with the Bar of Ireland on issues of mutual benefit,
- Maintain and build working relationships at a European and international level, and
- Liaise with the judiciary and the Courts Service to obtain and communicate information in relation to plans and pace of return to previous work practices in the courts’ system.
There is also an evident need for a Society programme of supports and CPD to maintain and further enhance positive changes in work practices, and to equip the sector with the next-level skills required to manage business operations, finances and staff, and client relationships in the future working environment.
Priority should be given to:
- Financial, debtor, and cashflow management,
- Business development (including diversification) and client relationship management, and
- Mental-health supports.
The Law Society should continue with the digitisation of member information, supports, training and seminars. It should consider creating a COVID-19 ‘digital knowledge bank’ to provide expert advice, guidance, FAQs, and webinars.
Further, the Society should:
- Create and facilitate connections within the sector, and build collaborative relationships with other representative organisations,
- Increase member communication and engagement, build awareness of supports and information available, and signpost the supports available via other agencies and organisations, such as Local Enterprise Offices,
- Set up a virtual members’ network to encourage dialogue, highlight concerns, and facilitate collaboration on effective and workable solutions,
- Investigate the potential for creating podcasts for practices to learn from each other, continuously improve, develop business, and evolve their technology-enabled workplace, and
- Consider shared learning events and provision of individual or group mentoring as a model for support.
The report recommends that the Society should also review and monitor the situation, and respond as required as next stages evolve. It should also monitor market and economic developments in relation to COVID, and check in regularly with practices – for example, via biannual ‘pulse surveys’ – to assess how their businesses are continuing to experience and adapt to ongoing changes in the business environment.
The Business Recovery Report provides concrete evidence of the effects of the pandemic across the profession, and how it has responded and adapted to the altered environment. It demonstrates that the continuing impact of COVID will require ongoing agility and resilience for some time.
While there are undoubtedly significant challenges for the profession, there is also a demonstrable adaptation of work practices in order to tackle the impact of COVID, and there are many examples of positive change at a pace, depth, and breadth that would not have occurred otherwise.
There is also a high degree of financial impact on businesses across all areas (actual income, projected income, cashflow, etc), which can be dealt with to some extent through internal cashflow management processes and finding efficiencies. However, the research also reflects a dependence on external supports through Government schemes and initiatives.
The global pandemic can be seen, in a way, as a ‘forced experiment’ – and practices have responded in ways that have sustained their businesses since March 2020.
The key will be that those responsive, innovative processes and work practices continue – and are supported by the Law Society and State – so that all involved can capitalise on the ‘forced’ change in work practices and business operations, and maintain progress towards business stability and return/recovery.
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