How Bar leaders are leading and supporting Covid-19 crisis management
President, Law Society England and Wales, London
The Law Society of England and Wales discusses its efforts
The Law Society of England and Wales represents nearly 180,000 solicitors in England and Wales and overseas, advising a range of individual and corporate clients, from the most vulnerable in an institution to a multinational business. Their job is to help these professionals to help the public, at all times seeking to uphold the law. The virus has created a terrible crisis for lawyers and their businesses and the Law Society is doing all it can to give the legal profession and the public the support that it so badly needs.
The Covid-19 crisis team
In advance of the virus hitting our shores, the Law Society had in place the ability for its teams to be able to work remotely. We were able to move quickly out of our building and to provide a full immediate service from disparate remote locations.
We put together a Covid-19 crisis team whose job has been to coordinate information gathering from across England and Wales to enable us to understand what the short to medium-term challenges were and how those might best be addressed. We have a dedicated email address and helplines. We issue regular guidance and our website is full of practical advice. We have sent out surveys to thousands of solicitors in large, medium and small firms, including many sole practitioners.
The wheels of justice
A major challenge for our society has been to keep our criminal and civil courts functioning. In the early days, before complete lockdown, our solicitors were going into prisons, police stations and courts at risk to their health. These risks diminished as many courts moved towards operating remotely, but have not disappeared.
We have calls every day with the Ministry of Justice and those who run our courts, prisons and police stations and have worked with them to make sure that safety measures are in place to protect the health of all users. Health security guidance has been issued, as well as protocols for protection in police stations. We report any infringements and also support the courts and give feedback on how audio technology is best used – an obvious challenge being to maintain the confidentiality of communications between solicitors and their clients.
We have similar calls with the Ministry of Justice and relevant agencies covering our family and civil courts.
Our calls are also attended by representatives of the Legal Aid Agency, responsible for approving public funding for those unable to afford representation. We spend a great deal of time with the agency and government seeking to ensure the financial survival of frontline practitioners.
We were able to ensure that those who were keeping the courts open were classified as ‘key workers’, meaning that their children could go to school and be safe there while their parents supported the justice system.
The legal community generally
No part of the legal community will emerge from this crisis unscathed. Large firms are ceasing to make profit distributions to partners. Small to medium firms are putting some of their lawyers on ‘furlough’ leave which means that 80 per cent of their salary up to £2,500 a month will be paid by the government until the end of June. At the same time, all face challenges in relation to the payment of professional indemnity insurance premiums, which are on the increase just at a time when work for law firms is on the decrease.
We have developed a business development continuity ‘tool’ on our website which enables our members to understand which parts of the government’s support package applies to them and we are consistently talking to government about ways in which the package can be enhanced to meet the particular needs of the profession.
Our members are often empathetic problem solvers who specialise in transferring problems from clients’ shoulders on to their own. Unsurprisingly they suffer from stress in normal times. Working in isolation, with work levels falling and clients in deep trouble, has added to these challenges for mental health. We actively promote the support available from LawCare, a charity supported by the Law Society with helplines available to those in distress.
Even before the crisis the Law Society has spent many years as part of the international legal community, seeking to ensure the international legal solutions could be provided to global challenges such as human rights, the misuse of data, equality and diversity and the environment. In recent weeks we have participated in a remote conference in St Petersburg and a Group of 7 Leaders’ Forum alongside our friends from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. We shared experiences on dealing with the virus and how to support the public, the profession and the rule of law.
In this respect it must always be business as usual.