What is it really like working as a family lawyer in a lockdown?

Stowe Family Law | 14 Jul 2020 0

A family lawyer in a lockdown: Sarah Jane Lenihan, Partner at the Stowe Family Law office in London Victoria on the reality of working as a family lawyer in lockdown…

Busy!  It actually has not stopped!  I have envied friends and family who posted on social media of their latest hobbies – whether this is baking, long walks, yoga or watercolours as I feel all I have done is work.  

When we were first told that the offices would be closing what first struck me was sheer panic.  I wondered how I would possibly run my busy caseload and deal with the 9 hearings I had in the diary over the next 6 weeks from home. 

Luckily in January 2019 at the Stowe Family Law office in London Victoria, we decided to be as paper-free as possible.  Being 100% paper-free in family law is never an option due to original court orders and signed documents. However, I decided to stop printing everything, corresponded where possible by email and ensured that every piece of paper was scanned onto our case management system.  We reached the stage where we could describe ourselves as ‘paper-light’.  

Looking back I am SO grateful we did as even though I found the initial transition stressful I cannot imagine how I would have coped if I had not been working this way for the last 15 months!  How would I have possibly got 30 odd case files home?

My first task upon the announcement of our office closure was to get the court bundles ready for the hearings. Luckily I have an amazing PA who stayed late with me for a couple of days to make sure they were all prepared, scanned into the system and hard copies sent to the court for all 9 hearings.

This meant I left the office with my laptop, mobile and the rather optimistic thought that we had probably overprepared as we would be back in a couple of weeks but at least we would not be rushing around once back to get ready for the hearings.  Oh, how wrong I was, 4 months later and still no plans for our offices to open.

Working from home

The first couple of days of being a family lawyer in a lockdown felt like a bit of a novelty, being able to get up at 8 am rather than 6 am to exercise and be at my desk at 9 am without any fight for a seat or paying for overpriced coffee.  

Having a homemade lunch and even starting dinner at a reasonable hour and looking forward to cooking something nutritious.  Throughout the day and evening, there were lots of Zoom calls with colleagues, clients and families to keep in touch, maybe I could get used to this, I thought.  

Well, that did not last for long. With everyone wanting to Zoom all day every day it meant I was often working late to actually get work done.  Court hearings were being adjourned at short notice with no sign of when they were being put in the diary. This meant lots of telephone calls with clients to try to support them through this difficult time and for once not having the answers as to their questions such as when will it be relisted…

Then everyone got bored of Zoom and the Court got used to remote hearings.  I even had clients worrying about possible adjournments (I prewarned everyone this might happen at short notice) reaching agreements to avoid further delay and litigation.  

I found solicitors who had previously been very difficult becoming softer and friendlier and despite the damage that the awful virus was doing to individuals health and finances the world seemed a kinder place.

The change as lockdown started to lift

Then as lockdown started to be lifted the enquiries came pouring in. Spending too much time together, ill health, loss of jobs and financial worries seemed to be the main areas of dispute.  Not to mention the arguments over children being moved from household to household and who they were allowing the child to socialise with.  

Everyone seemed to be more irritable, less patient and wanting everything done now.  I had to take a step back and really keep calm as quite easily this situation could have become too overwhelming to handle.  

I spent a lot of my time (as we do as family solicitors) emotionally supporting my clients, asking them to not make any rash decisions and to take some time to really think about how they wanted to proceed, what outcome they wanted to achieve and how we best get there.  Emotions were certainly running high. 

At Stowe Family Law we are lucky to have excellent relationships with lots of other professionals that we can put our client’s in contact with to make sure they obtain the right support when they need it and allow us to focus on what we do best, the legal advice.

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The new ‘normal’

So where are we now? As a family lawyer in a lockdown?: Still very busy, but so much more used to it, still working harder than I ever have before but feel like myself and the team around me are in a good routine and more in control of this situation.  

Hearings are being adjourned less, we have got to grips with e-bundling and reviewing documents online and comfortable with video conferencing.  The feedback I have received from my clients is that they prefer being able to jump onto a video call with me to work through a proposal or to discuss a difficult subject rather than having to take time out of their busy working day to travel to the office.  

Not having to physically attend court is more time and cost-effective for everyone too as I can go in and out of a hearing. Often whilst a Judge is considering their judgement I work whilst the client can get something to eat and make a coffee rather than being stuck in a court conference room. 

On the whole, I have felt that the video hearings have been a success and allowed cases to progress without delay which is so beneficial for everyone particularly when there are children involved.  

Two of my happiest moments have been achieving two final private adoption orders for clients who had been waiting a long time to complete their family unit.  

I have found that once agreements have been reached and proceedings concluded that the tensions can decrease and allow clients to move on with their lives. This is such a rewarding feeling especially when I have been a crucial part in achieving the outcome they hoped for during our initial meeting many months before.

Throughout lockdown, I am so grateful to have my health and a job I love. I have heard some really sad stories and supported some individuals during some very difficult times including being stuck inside in abusive relationships which has been heart-breaking.  

My hope is that after this pandemic is over and some sort of normality resumes that the kindness I have witnessed continues into our new world as that is the one thing that can make life a little less stressful for everyone.

 

Sarah Jane advises on all areas of family law (divorce/dissolution, cohabitation, domestic violence, children) and has worked with a broad spectrum of clients both nationally and internationally.

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