New Zealand Law Society - Legal practice during levels 3 and 4 in a Whanganui law firm

Legal practice during levels 3 and 4 in a Whanganui law firm

By James Greenland

While lockdown has been a unique experience for Whanganui lawyers, it’s not been entirely without precedent.

An upturning of daily life, restrictions on movement and a reduction in workload would all have been experienced by practitioners the last time something like this happened, during the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918.

The New Zealand Yearbook 1920 records that in 1918 court filings were down about 16% from the year before, crime and convictions waned, and divorce rates almost doubled the year following.

(Notably, the statistics also show consumption of alcohol to have spiked sharply upwards in 1919, probably a sign of lifting spirits after both the dreadful pandemic and the Great War.)

More than 100 people in Whanganui died last century – the so-called Spanish Flu surely having an effect on the lawyers at Treadwell Gordon, even then already nearly 50 years old.

While the effects of COVID-19 this century have thankfully not been so severe, the response to and aftermath of the virus have nevertheless had a significant impact on life and legal practice.

The starting point

Treadwell Gordon is one of the country’s oldest firms. Founded in 1869, it has offices across the region, in Marton, Taihape and Ohakune, and at least one lawyer who works remotely from further afield.

From meeting clients online to managing workloads from home offices, in isolation or overrun with children, coronavirus has presented an interesting, at times challenging experience for all at the firm.

Partner and firm manager Richard Austin says there was an extremely busy period of adjustment in his home office during the early stages of lockdown Level 4, materially contributed to by him juggling tasks and technology that others in the office would usually be around to assist with.

“Answering the phone, taking messages, filing, printing and scanning.

“Whilst we were fully ‘tooled-up’ and able to work remotely, many things simply took longer,” he says.

“The power of the firm’s big printer/scanner is not matched by the little inkjet at home.”

Having made the tough decision to significantly reduce staff levels during the lockdown, he and fellow partner Simon Badger are happy things seem to be returning to normal, or at least more normal, under Level two.

While the Government’s wage-subsidy scheme allowed the partners some time to plan and adjust without having to make knee-jerk reactions, they know it’s been a difficult time for staff.

The buzz back in the office, the close-knit team working together again – albeit mindful of social distancing and safe hygiene practices – is welcome.

Technology changes

“Collegiality [during lockdown] was ensured through regular Microsoft Teams video messaging, including the regular Friday drinks and quiz,” Richard says, technology essential to working through the lockdown.

The firm was already set up with a paperless office system – all files stored electronically and accessible remotely, says Simon. Already familiar with Zoom, it was no problem moving much of his daily communications, with clients and colleagues, to the online video conferencing platform.

More confronting was the effect on workflow. With an immediate reduction of about 30%, peaking at 50% at one point during level 4, budgets took a hit but “the trend right now is positive,” says Simon.

“We started making plans immediately. In the end there were six iterations of our plan to enter lockdown, due to the constantly evolving situation and guidelines.

“That has meant our approach coming out of lockdown has been more reactive, than the proactive approach we took going in.”

He says that, generally, everyone has been understanding of the challenging situation.

“People were more than willing to use other methods to meet and interact.

“Most people had picked up on the technology in their personal lives to stay connected. The communication around remote/digital signing of documents early on in the lockdown from the Law Society and other sources was very good.”

50 years of legal practice

Garry Spooner stepped down from the helm three years ago, but remains a salaried partner in the firm. This year he celebrated his 50th year of legal practice, having spent every one of them at Treadwell Gordon.

All who have been with the firm long are familiar with Garry’s friendly presence around the practice, and his reliable good form at office Christmas parties, always accompanied by Elizabeth, his wife of 49 years.

When lockdown arrived, Garry – whose practice today is mostly relationship property matters – was grateful to be able to stay at home, relying on colleague Pétra to help with his files.

“I am something of a dinosaur with technology but very savvy with voice-activated dictation,” he says [into a microphone – his computer composing the response to my email].

“I would probably struggle working away from the office but what was provided for me was first class,” he says.

An avid sports fan and cherished member of several local and national sports trusts and boards, lockdown provided a welcome opportunity for Garry to get back to the things he loves.

“That allowed me to have an extended holiday – very rare for me, I might say, to catch up on gardening, reading, watching cricket and rugby replays, and extending my morning walks.

“What I missed was the camaraderie of everyone at the office and having the best office and vista in Whanganui.”

Transition for remote worker easier

Lisa Douglas joined the firm as civil litigation partner in 2017. She understands the value of being a part of the team.

She works remotely out of her home office in Clevedon, a rural community 40 minutes south of Auckland – itself a one-hour Air Chathams flight away from Whanganui.

“Whereas, once upon a time, it would have been seen as an impossibility for a lawyer who carries out court work to practise away from the firm’s offices and the local courthouse, these days it’s entirely possible,” Lisa says.

“Mainly this is because – apart from hearings – a lot of engagement with the court is by telephone and email, we have become largely paperless, and because technology has created endless possibilities for communications with clients and colleagues.”

Being accustomed to working remotely meant for Lisa, the transition to working under lockdown wasn’t as drastic as it was for many others.

“I know that many of my colleagues, and friends who work in other industries, have found working from home during the lockdown very difficult.

“For me, it was for the most part business-as-usual, and I’ve been very happy to share with colleagues some of the tips I’ve learnt working from home over the past few years.”

Lisa believes routine, good time-management skills, and regular communication with colleagues are the essential ingredients of a productive, positive work day.

Certain things have taken time to learn, she says, “like going through the usual daily routine – shower, breakfast, and exercise before you turn the computer on. And getting dressed to a reasonable standard – perhaps without the high heels”.

“These simple things should not be under-rated as having an impact on quality of work.

“Funnily enough, I have an old work colleague who – also remote working – used to take her handbag to her home office.

“Whatever works to create the environment that you need to be in the right headspace to use your legal skills in the same way you would if in a shared office with other lawyers.

“Structure in the day is also very important, as is setting boundaries. Without them, there can very easily end up being an unhealthy blur between work and home life.

“A dedicated home office that sits away from family space is a huge help, as well as adopting a discipline of not spreading work papers throughout the house, which at least subliminally keeps work on one’s mind more than it ought to be.

“It is also hugely beneficial, indeed healthy, to discuss challenges and bounce strategies off colleagues.

“And, perhaps most importantly, the key to effective, happy remote working is ensuring there is frequent, meaningful communication with colleagues. Working from home would be very isolating and lonely without it.”

“Everything moved so fast”

As usual during trying times, coronavirus presented even more difficulties for those already living in distress, including families Pétra Allen regularly assists through her volunteer work with the Womens’ Refuge after-hours crisis line.

“There was a dramatic increase in calls during the lockdown period,” says Pétra, in her fifth year of general practice with Treadwell Gordon.

“It was difficult to navigate as lockdown prevented the safe-house from being used. But the Whanganui Womens’ Refuge Office had some great procedures in place to manage that.”

As for her paid practice, “everything moved so fast”.

“It took a few days to adjust to working from home,” she says, due also to an especially busy period of settlements and pressing matters.

“I don’t think I have ever spent so much time on the phone.

“Our office is (mostly) paperless so access to electronic files was seamless. I do not have a printer or scanner in my home office and I never needed one – a healthy reminder for me and my printer usage when I head back to the office.

“Overall, I think it has been a great experience and a good test of how flexible even the legal community can be.

“Transactional work such as conveyancing took a little longer than usual as there are several people involved.

“But ultimately, I think my work benefited from having less distractions at home.

“There are far fewer distractions in my home office which gave me a great opportunity to catch up – although after 50 days I have started to miss the team environment, with colleagues around to bounce ideas off.

“Moving forward, this has been a good opportunity to see just how effective our technology is and perhaps will make some people think twice about their carbon footprint and whether it is worth travelling two or three hours for a one-hour meeting.

“In saying that though, I do miss the client interaction, particularly with our rural clients who I usually see out on the farm once or twice a month. Nothing beats talking to someone face to face.”

The newest firm member

For the firm’s newest employee Andrew Penn, it’s been an “extended holiday”.

Moving from Wellington to start with Treadwell Gordon in early March, Andrew’s general commercial practice was “just starting to generate some momentum” when lockdown struck.

Andrew says the unexpected time at home hasn’t been so bad, his bubble straddled by Castlecliff beach and golf links.

“Having the space has been a godsend. If we were in Wellington – before coming here, we were in a little rental in Karori – we would have been stuck inside. It would’ve been a nightmare.”

With two teenage daughters at home, and wife Jill – also a lawyer, for Oranga Tamariki and an essential worker who’s worked remotely most days during level three and four – Andrew has enjoyed time spent with family, playing the “main parent” for a spell, and especially hanging out with his six-year-old son James.

With that said, working parents will likely echo his reflective sentiment on lockdown lifting to level two: “I’m looking forward to school re-opening.”

James Greenland james.w. is a journalist based in Whanganui.

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