Working from home might be great for now – but will it last?

Marilyn Stowe is one of the UK’s best known family lawyers. She founded and sold the UK’s largest family law firm in 2017. She takes a look at whether working from home will last forever.

I wore an Alexander McQueen cream and black tweed suit with sky high black patent heels, to sign away ownership of my law firm. The sale completed auspiciously on Friday evening at 7pm on 17th February 2017. I was with my son Ben Stowe (a family lawyer with Magic Circle firm Levison Meltzer Piggot) in a high rise office building, in a large boardroom crammed with other smartly suited solicitors and accountants. My team from KPMG beamed as one of them advised me all the documents ranged across three entire tables, were signed and I could put away my elegant fountain pen. I had just sold the largest family law firm in the UK to a private equity company, whose casually dressed partner, was smiling at me, holding out a glass of champagne. Exhausted, I downed it in seconds.

The process involved five months of due diligence, during which my firm was turned inside out by several crack teams of professionals. Things moved fast and I was given just two weeks notice of completion.

I had negotiated a far better deal than press speculation. Although I had not intended to retire so soon, I agreed.

However I soon learned the down side: “The King is dead;- Long live the King.”

By Monday morning, I was history.

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I started my new life in a way that will be familiar to many family lawyers, now a year into lockdown.

My tailored outfits were redundant. I realised I possessed no ‘casual’ clothes. Weekends pre-sale had been spent slobbing about, no make-up, just relaxing and exercising. Marks and Spencer did very well out of me those first weeks post completion.

I arranged a charity auction of my redundant designer clothing which raised £15k, the rest went to charity shops.

I had to manage without my admin team. Everything was always done for me down to posting a letter, sorting IT, paying bills, getting cash from the bank, shopping for lunch, making a coffee. Now it was my turn.

More importantly, difficult conversations were smoothly fielded by my team and I had no direct contact with anyone I didn’t know. All change. Bankers and financiers, even complete strangers who had read about the sale circled around me like predatory sharks.

My daily routine abruptly stopped. Hitherto work was lived to an action-packed timetable, seeing clients, meeting teams in each office and net working, even visiting shops in the areas where we opened. After years of running offices on the high streets of England, I knew how often a chance conversation in a dress shop, or a beautician could produce a wealthy client. I embraced glamorous visibility on the ground, dressed to impress, but in addition my PR took various other forms including regular tv and radio appearances besides social media and speaking at conferences all designed to reinforce a highly successful brand.

Above all, I enjoyed daily conversations with the team who ran my blog. Between us; – editor Cameron Paterson, John Bolch, Tony Hudson and I, we would pitch ideas, the range and quality of our posts ensured with our vast readership we featured in the world’s top ten family law blogs.

All of it I had signed away with my elegant but now also redundant, fountain pen. Perhaps you may think I lived like Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada. Perhaps on reflection, I did!

I came down to earth with a massive bang. I lost my identity. Locked into 3 years of restrictive covenants, unable to practice, it took every one of those 3 years to get used to not getting ready for work, not thinking about business. I was miserable, social isolation being the worst.

I did receive an unexpected invitation to open the London Stock Exchange in 2019 in recognition of the sale, and for a few short hours, mixing with high flying women politicians professionals and businesswomen who had flown into London from all corners of the globe, I was back in the centre of where I wanted to be. I made some good friends that day. I keenly looked forward as time dragged by, to getting back to business.

Or I did.

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Fast forward and in came 2020, the year no-one foresaw. Working from home became the norm for everyone. The office had turned into a potential death trap. Family lawyers across the country were encouraged to lead their own isolated way of life. It struck me as the worst possible nightmare. But the more I read on social media, the more curious I became as to how family lawyers had coped and viewed the future with lockdown finally over.

Were they as keen as me to get back to life in the fast lane?

During the first lockdown, I had noticed to my surprise that family lawyers on twitter enthusiastically embraced lockdown. Work seemed to keep flowing in, and they also found a freedom impossible in a formal office environment. Understandably many had disliked travelling (especially by Tube), but they actually enjoyed wearing their casual clothes and parents with children were able to set a less punishing routine around childcare. They appeared to love the lack of a routine and timetable that I had so enjoyed. I read several lawyers publicly stating they and their colleagues had no wish to return to the office and keep working from home forever.

‘How long will that last?’ I wondered. No more office interaction? No more solid roots for the public to visit? ‘Give it a few months’ I thought. ‘Their opinions might change’

Now a year later, not one but three lockdowns under our belt, vaccines are on the horizon. Normal service looks set to resume. Are family lawyers now perhaps looking forward to a return to the office?

I asked some leading family lawyers across the country for their views.

First the ‘Magic Circle’ lawyers in Central London.

Ben Stowe, my son, is a father of two young children. His offices are close by St Paul’s Cathedral, and he represents clients from Chicago to St Petersburg to Tel Aviv, holding virtual conferences regularly with his clients, at a time to suit them. He adopts a similar policy for his UK clients. He remains as busy as ever and is no fan of the long trek in and out of Central London, regarding a daily commute as ‘an expensive waste of time’ which can be spent more profitably at home in front of his myriad of screens. He expects a ‘hybrid approach to become the new normal, attending office/chambers as required.’

Lockdown has given firms ‘a nudge to adopt a more technologically advanced way of life.’ He praises the courts too for their online approach which also saves hours of travelling and court delays which he expects will further develop.

Nigel Shepherd agrees. Formerly a formidable sparring partner of mine at big hitters Mills & Reeve Manchester office, he too foresees a ‘blended approach’ albeit he emphasises the importance of face-to-face meetings with clients and colleagues ‘which cant be understated’. Technologically his firm is as might be expected, making its own innovations as well as configuring office space for innovation hubs and break out spaces. I notice international heavyweights DLA are also investing heavily in new provincial office space.

I spotted young David Lister, a few years ago as ‘one to watch.’ He already heads the family practice at national firm Simpson Millar. He disagrees with Stowe and Shepherd.

“With few exceptions, we no longer see face to face meetings as necessary.  In the same way many no longer look to the high street for their clothing, opting for online stores, the public seems perfectly at ease procuring legal advice in the same way.”

Lister says.

“With 98% of staff working from home we’ve been able to increase productivity, maintain revenue and drive efficiencies without client satisfaction levels being adversely affected.”

But what of the quality of life lived by family lawyers, if it’s spent at home?

Lucy Phipps heads a team of six fee earners at Harrowells a grand 108-year-old firm centred in and around York. Full disclosure, she worked with me for many years. I think she’s a terrific lawyer. She can’t wait for a return to office since she regards personal interaction with her colleagues and clients as vital. She queries whether bringing work into home is ever a positive.

She says:

“My team benefits from keeping work as separate as possible, to enable them to ‘switch off.’”

Undoubtedly family law is a stressful business. This is not lost on Grainne Fahy, head of South East and London team of BLM. She feels fortunate to have worked from home two days a week for years to cope with her parenting obligations. With newfound flexibility as a result of lockdown, her work is now ‘fully seamless and completely paperless.’ She thinks this approach will particularly assist women. But she adds that lockdown over, she forsees a mix; – ‘oh to put on something other than my gym gear.’

Tell me about it Grainne, I’ve been there.

For completeness I asked my friend, Prof James Stewart of Pennington Manches, one of the country’s most senior and well-respected lawyers for the last word. His firm was forced to make much earlier technological home improvements for its fee earners back in 1993 when they were victims of an IRA bomb blast in London. Still, they have no plans to become ‘a remote law firm.’

He says:

 “Going to an office is sometimes like going to the gym, it’s a break from the routine at home. The evangelists who tell us that physical offices are things of the past, don’t appear to appreciate how important it is to have interaction and face to face discussions with colleagues, particularly those working on the same cases. It is also important for our mental wellbeing, particularly in the case of those who are living alone.”

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How to draw these differing strands together? Most seem to welcome newfound flexibility offered by working from home and in the office. This will certainly assist in recruitment, particularly of those who stay at home for childcare.

In York, however Lucy Phipps still sees her office with its long-established roots remaining entirely at the forefront of her firm. I suspect that is because travel is less of a nightmare to and from home than tube travel in Central London. Her opinion is likely replicated by many high street family lawyers at the heart of their local communities.

Even so, many still appear enthusiastic to stay at home. Will it last? Do I foresee family lawyers forevermore tucked up at home, wearing a smart shirt or blouse with tracksuit bottoms for Zoom appearances?

I have experienced an isolated lifestyle longer than them all. Come the end of this pandemic, and it might take a couple of years, I’m convinced there will be a mass return to the office, the roots of the workplace are dug too deep. I don’t buy into the theory of working home alone all day every day for years on end, the kids at school, a partner who may be working elsewhere, with only a couple of smart screens and a printer for company.

I’ve been there. I’ve got the tracksuit.

9 Comments

  • test

    Working from home does not work for everyone. Imagine being stuck in a small flat all day long and your office is, in effect, your living room. No opportunity to switch off at all. Add to that the loneliness of being at home alone all day. A perfect recipe for mental health to deteriorate.

    Reply
  • test

    Good point and I agree. I think the office will make a big comeback when people realise just how isolating working from home really is. They may need time, but I’m pretty sure it will happen. Thanks very much for your comment.

    Reply
  • test

    I think working from home takes self-confidence because you can’t always get instant feedback on your queries, so sometimes you have to take a deep breath and trust your instincts and training (I was very lucky that part of mine was with Simon Pigott) and advise as best you can. I do not miss the 2 hr daily commute which I agree is a complete waste of life and I love being able to walk the dog at lunchtime and eavesdrop on my husband’s life trying to teach A’level chemistry to non-communicative teenagers. He says lockdown teaching has made him better at explaining complex theories more simply and I’d say lockdown initial appointments have made me better at explaining discombobulating divorce and financial remedy proceedings in a more ‘attention holding’ user friendly way. Well I hope so because I want to stay home!

    Reply
  • test

    Hi Marilyn
    Excellent and attractively argued
    I’ve been as you know a sole practitioner entity now for 6 years
    I’ve enjoyed the control it has given to me over my work but I also was aware before Covid that working alone does isolate your sense of being part of the wider profession.
    This must be particularly difficult for younger members of the profession who gain and learn so much from just being around other working colleagues.
    The temptation to work for longer periods without breaks and well into unsocial hours is an ever present risk when working from home. The sense of a home haven separated from work is of course lost when work and home are just a room apart or even one and the same space. These do have well being consequences.
    I don’t buy “the return to normal” in due course… I do believe there has been a permanent change where the flexibility of hybrid working both in reducing the commercial cost of office space and the need for the travel period in between will be more the future “norm”.
    Ashley XX
    PS
    You’re looking as good as ever… of course

    Reply
  • test

    Hi Ashley
    Thank you! I do feel that there is a significant difference between a solicitor’s practice and that of a barrister. I think high visibility on the ground is vital for a successful law firm, not least for a member of the public in choosing a solicitor, and it is not just a question of being high profile across the internet. Its important in most cases to physically meet and chat with a new client. It also takes a lot of hard work to build and develop a law firm, where many people are involved and will need guidance. Too many people think its easy, anyone can do it, and they cant. Being a family solicitor takes all kinds of specialist skills including the ability to run a successful firm from practical, technical, marketing and financial knowledge, all part of a successful solicitor’s armoury.
    I agree that working from home has become more accepted than it once was – possibly because more men are working from home too (?) and it wont end, but ultimately when this pandemic does finally finish, I do think there will be a return to the norm for law firms.
    You were a pioneer amongst your peers, and its worked very well for you.
    But I was interested and encouraged to see that DLA have invested into an £85m scheme in Central Leeds.
    Very best wishes lets have lunch when we are finally set free!
    Marilyn
    X

    Reply
  • test

    Hi Arabella
    Thanks for your comments with which I fully understand and are highly relevant.. I still think that actually managing developing marketing and running a successful law firm requires ‘boots on the ground’. A hybrid model might well be the answer for some, but not for all, and in due course this pandemic will be history. It will be interesting to see how it evolves thereafter.
    I love interacting with people so for me working from home at my age would be dreadful. However when I was a mum with a young baby I would have jumped at the chance and at least arranged some of my work from home.. But it didnt exist then neither did the web in any form no emails and only a clunky mobile phone, I had no choice but to keep driving half way round Leeds to East Leeds and back every day, with a young baby and all the paraphanelia or lose my practice. That routine continued when Ben was at school in West Leeds and I had to drive from North Leeds to West Leeds then to the East Leeds office and back again every day. There was no way I was going to lose my practice. I remember once bumping my car on the way back to school from my office in the snow. And a little boy having milk and biscuits when I finally flew in two hours late. In common with many young working mums in the 90s I certainly had it tough working in the office but overall, I still would vote for boots on the ground every time.
    Best wishes
    Marilyn

    Reply
  • test

    Great article Marilyn and I could not agree more. I made myself put a dress on the other day to go into the office (as opposed to the leggings and gym top that I am currently wearing as I type this morning!) and wow, what a positive difference it made to my day. I cannot wait until myself and my team are all back in the office. You cannot beat face to face contact and general office banter to brighten up your day. I very much doubt anyone can hand on heart over the past 12 months say that their mental health has not been affected by the various lockdowns.

    Reply
  • test

    Yes yes yes yes !!!!

    Reply
  • test

    I had a certain amount of flexibility and worked one day at home a week prior to lockdown where I could be more productive than in open plan. There are certainly advantages to remote working and court hearings from a personal perspective. I miss interaction with colleagues and Microsoft Teams is a poor substitute. Telephone hearings should not be the norm. When we have control of the pandemic I would favour a mix of in person and video hearings with more substantive issues being in person. Telephone hearings are not good for clients who can feel alienated from the process

    Reply

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