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Regional: How regional lawyers coped with crisis

Regional: How regional lawyers coped with crisis

By Karin Derkley

Interviews 

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COVID-19 accelerated many changes already underway in regional practice.

Changes forced on regional legal practice by COVID-19 have brought benefits that will outlive the public health crisis say country lawyers.

Among the changes are upgraded technology, more efficient file management systems and acceptance of remote working which is removing long distance travel for lawyers and clients.

Horsham lawyer Patrick Smith of O’Brien and Smith Lawyers says the restrictions that required more than half the firm’s staff to work from home pushed along a long planned wholesale migration of his firm’s files into digital form. 

“We’d been talking for a while about changing from physical files to soft copies. And suddenly we had to make that decision in the course of a week. It’s worked really well – it’s so much more efficient now.”

Ballarat lawyer James Remington of Nevetts Lawyers says his firm was geared up for remote working with everything already on the cloud. “We were able to move to working remotely pretty quickly without a huge investment. It was really just about buying webcams for those who didn’t have laptops.”

For Maurice Blackburn’s regional offices the transition to remote working was also reasonably pain-free. The firm had already transitioned to electronic files and had the technology to easily adapt to videoconferencing via Teams or Skype, says Wangaratta-based senior associate and accredited specialist in personal injury law Sarah Notarianni. During the lockdown, it ramped up its use of Docusign which allows practitioners to send through documents to clients to review and sign in real time. 

The firm kept connected with regional staff via a central COVID-19 working group to make sure non-metro offices like Wangaratta were supported when they were in different levels of restriction. 

“We made positives out of a terrible situation,” Ms Notarianni says. “We already had good computer systems and they’ve only been improved on during COVID-19. Our clients would of course have preferred to pop in and meet us face to face, but the technology meant we were able to continue to progress matters and get outcomes for clients.”

Shepparton lawyer Danny Barlow of Dawes & Vary Riordan Lawyers says the adaptability of regional practitioners to the changes forced by COVID-19 has been “one of the real positives that has come out of this. 

“There’s no way you could have mobilised the entire profession and said let’s do this experiment for nine months where you have most of your staff working from home and see how that goes. But everyone has been enormously impressed by how staff have adapted and how productive they've been in those circumstances."

While the restrictions on face-to-face meetings were loosened much earlier in the regions than in metropolitan Melbourne, regional practitioners say the shift to videoconferencing was an innovation that many say they plan to retain.

WorkCover associate in Maurice Blackburn’s Bendigo office, Andrew Johnston, says the restrictions forced the firm to innovate and find new ways to do work. “There are things that will stay post-pandemic and there are things that will probably go. It’s been a really good opportunity to rapidly progress to doing things more electronically and it’s forced us to learn new ways to do work that have been just as effective as the old ways. But equally there will be things that are best done face-to-face and best done the old fashioned way.”

Regional practitioners have been dealing with the issue of distance for a long time, Mr Barlow says, “and it’s not unusual to us, so we’ve already been to some degree in the practice of saying: do you need to do a two-hour round trip to see me or can we deal with this another way?” 

The lockdown forced many clients, including older clients who previously would not have been familiar with the technology, to master the art of video-calls “because for many that was the only way they would get to see their children and grandchildren”, Mr Barlow says. “And because they had adapted to that already, it was easy for them to have that video contact with us as well. And I think they found it comforting to see a face on the other side of the screen rather than just a voice over the phone.”

“Geography’s very relevant up here and the more we can give people the option of not driving two hours to see a lawyer the better,” Mr Remington says. Meeting people via Zoom also made meetings more efficient, especially when it involved documentation, he says. “The technology allows you to share documents on screen and highlight things and everyone’s got everything at their fingertips because they're sitting there on the computer.”

The wholesale move to videoconferencing has also made it more efficient to deal with overseas clients, Mr Barlow points out. “There’s a misconception that regional people only deal in little towns. But plenty of regional firms have international clients, such as big agribusiness clients from all over the world. The difference was that rather than clients flying into the country, it could now be done by videoconferencing.”

Videoconferencing also made it easier for regional lawyers to tap into CPD activities and conferences that would previously have required long journeys and a probable overnight stay in Melbourne to attend. “We’ve had greater access to CPD activities that were formerly only accessible to lawyers in the city,” says Bendigo lawyer Juliana Smith of JSLaw. “It also means country lawyers can have a greater say on committees, as we can Zoom into meetings.”

“I’ve actually well exceeded my CPD points for the year because it was so easy this year because we were offered so many events online,” Patrick Smith says. “So that’s been absolutely fantastic.”

Court processes have also become more efficient with less wasted time, Ms Smith says. “The biggest improvement has been the ability to ‘appear’ in court remotely and have set times for hearings. There is less downtime by way of travelling to and from courts.” Paradoxically though, online courts worked so well during the pandemic that Ms Smith worries that circuit courts that normally visit regional areas may not do so in the future. “That would mean the public will not have the same opportunity to see justice done.”

Ms Notarianni suspects hearings might ultimately become a hybrid experience with some witnesses appearing via video link. “People will still want their day in court, but it means that if you have a very busy doctor needing to give evidence, it might be the difference between them taking just an hour of their day to log in and give evidence rather than having to spend the whole morning physically travelling to a regional court, then sitting around until they are called.”

After an initial hiatus, business has also bounced back in regions, driven in part by the flight of people relocating from metropolitan Melbourne. Patrick Smith says that after a brief “really quiet period” for about three weeks in March, “we came back much busier than ever and have been booming since”. He puts the surge in work down to a boom in farmland transfers, with purchasers from the city buying up properties around the area.

Mr Remington says after an initial shockwave period when the pandemic first hit, “everyone’s bounced back pretty well and the amount of property activity going on up here is keeping everyone flat out”. Property developments that were initially mothballed have now been kickstarted and there has also been an acceleration of the tree-changing trend, which includes lawyers relocating to the regions. 

“I know of people who have been working from home (in the regions) and are thinking of staying to work here,” he says. “It’s happening in two ways, they might move up to practise in the country, or they might move up to the country while still working for a big firm in this city and do a couple days in the office, but otherwise work from home.”

Mr Barlow says he also knows of a number of city-based lawyers who moved out to the regions during the pandemic “and some have said that they’re not going back. They realise they can work from a regional area and are in discussions with their employer about how they can keep this arrangement going. And their employers have been very supportive of it.”

Merton Lawyers managing partner Anthony Curtin moved to Torquay in December planning to commute to his Melbourne office four days a week. When COVID-19 hit he didn’t get back to Melbourne until November. In the intervening time he set himself up in a co-working space in the coastal town and realised there was so much work in Torquay that he has set up a separate office there as well as his two Melbourne offices. 

“The thing people underestimate down at Torquay is you’ve got massive businesses down here like Rip Curl, Quicksilver, Patagonia’s head office, Bellroy’s head office. But there’s not many corporate lawyers down this way, so that’s built a business case for us to open an office here.” ■

From Reservoir to Bendigo

Maurice Blackburn lawyer Andrew Johnston went on leave in early March in anticipation of the birth of his first child, and never went back to his office in Reservoir. Instead he and his partner fast-tracked a long-held plan to move to a regional city, relocating to the firm’s Bendigo office. 

“We’d always been keen on the idea of moving to a regional city, but we were worried about moving away from friends and family. But through the pandemic the only way we could maintain connection with friends and colleagues was through videoconferencing. And having experienced how well that worked gave us the confidence that we could have a better life for our family growing up in a regional city without losing the connection with our friends and family.”
“For us Bendigo has everything we loved about Melbourne, including great food, but it’s so much more accessible.” 
From the Bendigo office Mr Johnston continues to work on his Reservoir files, as well as taking on Bendigo matters. “I've been able to do that because of MS Teams and WhatsApp and being able to run files electronically throughout the pandemic.”
The acceptance of technology forced by COVID-19 has overcome what would previously have been the inconvenience of being based in the regions, Mr Johnston says. “This morning, for instance, I’m sitting here in Bendigo attending a settlement conference with a client who is somewhere in Melbourne, and counsel is probably in chambers in the CBD. Once, someone would have had to spend two hours travelling either from Melbourne to Bendigo or from Bendigo to Melbourne to attend a five or 10-minute conference. It’s a really effective use of everyone’s time.”

 


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