Positive Steps with Ruth Hawkins of Boardman Hawkins & Osborne LLP
We opened our business in September 2018, so when lockdown started, we had only been in business for 18 months. We could never have known when we opened our doors, that we would have been facing such challenges!
So here our steps for coming through Covid-19.
1. Our specialist family law firm currently consists of 7 lawyers, and 4 admin staff. Our team also consists of 8 parents of children aged between 6 and 15….so lockdown has presented major challenges all round. As well as dealing with stressful, important, and often urgent work, the majority of our team have also been balancing the needs of childcare and home schooling for the last four months. We have done our utmost to support each other, and share tips throughout, but it’s been a tough time for everyone. We have also had three members of the team shielded throughout. We could only have done this by being such a tight-knit sensible team.
2. During July, we have been working hard on a partial reopening of our beautiful office. So far we have had clients attend for prearranged appointments, and we have also allowed some clients to access the office for the purposes of seeing experts in children cases, and ‘attending’ court virtually where they have no access to decent WIFI to allow them to use one of the (many!) many platforms the courts are currently using for hearings. Two of our admin team our back in the office now regularly, and three of our lawyers are back part time. The two admin staff now back in the office have been pleased to get back. They are both under 20, and living at home with parents and siblings. So a return to the ‘new normal’ for them has been extremely positive. One of them, Ellie, has taken the opportunity during lockdown to focus on finishing her apprenticeship with Abingdon & Witney College and has accelerated the completion of her portfolio so that she is about to complete her apprenticeship. We are clear that our team’s productivity has been largely unaffected by working remotely, and no one is under any pressure to return to the office before they are ready to.
3. We have all adapted reasonably easily to remote working. We were almost paperless before lockdown, and this has just hastened that development. We have a good case management system, which is cloud based, and allows us to work anywhere where the WIFI or 4 or 5G is good enough! We have used less paper in the last 15 weeks, and that is a development which fits in very well with our ‘green’ credentials. When we set up our business, we could not have envisaged we’d be in this position, but we are mightily glad we invested in good IT and systems which have meant we had such a smooth transition to the decision to send everyone home back in March!
4. That brings me to mention court. That’s been interesting! The majority of our legal work is court based. The courts are all using different systems for court hearings; telephone hearings, Microsoft TEAMs, Skype, and also the MoJ platform CVP. All the platforms took a lot of getting used to for our lawyers, but for many of our clients, they have really struggled. We have therefore become technical experts, at helping vulnerable clients find their way, remotely, through these difficulties, and it has tested our team’s abilities to think on their feet, and as creatively as possible, often with very little notice!
5. We have taken the opportunity during lockdown to do some maintenance work to our Grade II listed office, so that when we are fully reopen, clients and visitors, will see a real difference. We are pleased to say we have used other local independent businesses to undertake this work.
6. We have encouraged our team to take advantage of the webinars and training on offer, in order to develop.
7. We are recruiting. We have recently appointed two Consultant Solicitors, both due to start imminently. We are pleased to be strengthening our team of specialist family lawyers with one lawyer who will join Helen and Nel and Amanda in undertaking matrimonial and private children work, and another lawyer to join me, Emily, Irena and Lucy doing care proceedings and child protection work, and who is also keen to develop our domestic abuse work. Families have found lockdown especially stressful and our team have been busy throughout. We have not furloughed or lost any staff, and our entire team have been busy throughout this difficult time.
8. We are a small firm, but we have all worked hard at pulling together during these difficult times, and have maintained regular team and lawyer meetings by Zoom, and also the occasional Zoom drinks! We have shared laughter as well as stresses. And there have been plenty of both!
9. We have continued to think of others. We have recently collected sanitary and beauty products for the Oxfordshire Refuges, and those taking refuge from domestic abuse situations in lockdown, an area we know has seen a massive increase in cases. We are also making donations of £500 to each of two charities we know have seen an increase in demand: Flag DV, our Nexus partner, a charity providing free legal advice to victims of domestic abuse, and to Abingdon Carousel family centre. Abingdon Carousel have maintained a number of vital services online for their users, and have also joined forces with SOFEA and Fareshare to provide food boxes for the local community and have regularly been providing up to 100 food boxes at a time. We felt both charities would appreciate a small token from us during these difficult times. Our lawyers have also constantly thought of ways to help our most vulnerable clients, and provided them with cleaning equipment and made referrals to agencies that can assist in practical ways.
10. Some of our lawyers have also been continuing to provide free legal advice to Flag DV clients and also through the Only Mums and Only Dads Green Telephone Scheme, which we signed up to within weeks of it being launched at the start of lockdown. This is a commitment to offer at least 20 minutes free legal advice to anyone who has experienced domestic abuse. Irena Osborne and I also quickly drafted an article for a book published by Only Mums and Only Dads https://www.onlymums.org/information/separating-parenting-through-the-covid-pandemic-key-questions-answered on domestic abuse, and I had discussions with the editors when the book was being planned.