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Martin Tolhurst unplugged - the pandemic, law firms, Dr. Who and Bob Dylan....

View profile for Simon Franklin
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It was all going along nicely…………

I recall the exact moment it happened, I was reading the paper. It was mid-February 2020, about 1:20 pm, I was escaping the office in a café being comforted by a latte and cheese panini, reading the paper  there were half a dozen lines in a small article. It was the first time I came across the term that was to become all too familiar “social distancing”. Something was happening in China.  I paid little attention to the article and moved on.

Fast forward a month, March 2020.  The last to leave the office I walked down the corridor,  the big decision had been made, we were all to work at home for an undefined period, no hugging or farewells, the workplace was deserted. We clapped at 8 o’clock on a Thursday evening to show appreciation to  NHS workers, were allowed one period of exercise a day, Matt Hancock was socially fondling rather than distancing. Specsavers was closed, so  Dominic Cummings decided to check his eyesight by driving from London to Durham, the way you do…….if asked Angela Rayner would have responded like Vicky Pollard about her only or main residence, yeah I live in that house that I own but no but yeah but no but …

It was then as with many law firms and indeed other businesses, individually and collectively that we stepped into Dr Who’s Tardis and travelled forward twenty years. In two years, work practices were advanced that could otherwise have taken a couple of decades. Law firms and life would never be and never will be the same.

For solicitors firms such as ours there had been numerous technological advancements over the years. Work practices have always been changing. Going back, it all started off with Olivetti (whatever happened to them?) typewriters with a memory, word processors, to fax machines and emails and the internet, but post Covid everything went into overdrive.

So how do we now deal with your work as our clients? How do we operate? And how was all of this changed by Covid? What goes on behind the scenes at Martin Tolhurst? This is Martin Tolhurst “unplugged”, minus the vocals and any acoustic accompaniment, access all areas…

For many years I worked the occasional morning at home on complicated files. I took the bulky files home with me in a large holdall, packed up my dictation machine and set up on the  kitchen table. There were files and papers all over the place, it was the only way to work.  The kitchen table is all that remains from that screenshot.  I now dictate remotely into my mobile phone, no need to bring home the dictation machine, it’s now redundant.

The dictation is then sent via my mobile phone to either one of our secretaries for typing, the secretary can be at any of our offices or alternatively sent remotely to a secure outsourcing company that we use, based in India.  How do we know it’s a secure system, the firm’s managing partner visited the operation in India where the typing work is undertaken and everything overseen.

My old holdall is now redundant, kept for nostalgia but destined ultimately to join all other used holdalls in the sky. We no longer have files, everything is paperless (time to confess that we do have one or two stragglers on that but we are working on them).  It is necessary to retain some hard copy documents but only a small fraction of the number that we used to retain pre-pandemic. Nearly all documents and post is now scanned in to our system and kept on an electronic paperless file.

From a client’s perspective, there is nothing more frustrating than wanting to speak urgently to somebody about a matter only to find that the person dealing with the case is either not in, working from home or say travelling to see a client out of the office.  This is no longer a problem, post Covid, as with all workplaces, we have had to adapt and operate with staff and fee earners working from home.  This has involved the implementation of a new phone system, if you call me on my office number the office number diverts to my mobile phone, I can then take the call, either from home if I am working there, or alternatively take it hands-free if travelling.

I can now work from any of our offices at Ashford, Gillingham, Longfield or Sittingbourne. It no longer matters where I am; all I need is a workstation. Although I am based principally at our Gillingham office it is easier for my secretary to work from the Longfield office, straightforward, not an issue. I spent some time on holiday abroad last summer, and with an internet connection I could do a couple of hours’ work from the hotel in the morning and reduce the backlog that I would have to deal with upon my return. All I needed was a laptop, my mobile phone and the internet connection.

The question of client contact is interesting, different clients have different expectations. I have a friend who is eighty, he still drives, for the past thirty years he has done his shopping at Sainsbury’s on a Friday morning.  He is there when they open at 7 o’clock and always first in.  Of course, at that time, none of the tills are open, he insists upon “being served” and refuses to use self-service tills.  After various letters to the manager and Sainsbury’s head office they now open up a till for him and immediately close it down after he has left until the tills open at 8 o’clock.

What on earth do Sainsbury’s till arrangements   have to do with solicitors’ firms? Bear with me… it’s about flexibility, we have many clients who prefer to visit the office to see us face-to-face. I have to admit that is my preferred option. Younger clients, however, are totally different, whether it is Microsoft Teams, Zoom or FaceTime, they prefer to discuss matters and provide instructions on screen, and are quite comfortable with that type of arrangement, it’s the norm to them , but not for others. Time travel has now taken us to client contact via Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc, but we still retain person-to-person meetings at our offices.

Law firms are no different to any other business. We have a choice of either embracing change or getting left behind. If the latter, it’s the beginning of the end.  One only has to think of Kodak, the pioneer company of everything photographic in the 70s and 80s, they did not adapt to the digital market, and now have all but disappeared, when did  Kodak last come up in any conversation? Kodak was the Apple of its day.

I first joined Martin Tolhurst as a trainee in the summer of 1980, so let’s go back and have a nostalgic look at how things were then. We used to have a tea lady. I only ever knew her as “Pinkie” she made the tea and coffee, came around the office with her trolley and a fine choice of biscuits, the day of the tea lady is no longer.

We used to carry out conveyancing completions personally, this involved a member of staff having to go to another firm of solicitors with a banker’s draft and swapping the banker’s draft for the deeds to the property. There was no electronic Land Registry or electronic transmission of funds.

The two senior partners when I started at our Gravesend office used to live locally, go home for lunch and return early afternoon. As a “profession,” solicitors were not permitted to advertise, the ambulance chasers are now all over daytime TV, we are on the radio, in sports stadiums, you name it and some firm is there advertising.

So where do we go to from here?

I started by suggesting that law firms had advanced by twenty years because of the pandemic. Pre Covid the legal profession always reminded me of an old British Rail advert of the 1980’s, the narrative was… We are getting there… As with many, but not all law firms, we have now arrived there, ahead of schedule.

What are the next twenty years likely to bring on?  There are two words which define the direction of travel, namely “Artificial Intelligence”.  It is inevitable that it will change not only the operation of law and delivery of legal services, but the whole of society in ways that we need to understand pretty quickly. This is all above my pay grade, best book I have come across is by Mo Gowdat entitled “Scary Smart” , well worth a read.

Think back, how did you celebrate the coming of the millennium, almost a quarter of a century ago?

In some ways, it doesn’t seem that long ago though does it? When we all woke up on 1st January 2000 there were no IPhones, digital newspapers and magazines, no video calling, no Google maps or  YouTube, no Bluetooth, Amazon just delivered books, CDs and DVDs, we did our Christmas shopping in shops, on the High Street. There was no T20 cricket, and the year before Gillingham had been in the same league as Manchester City… and lost  on penalties to them in a play-off final!

Change happens, it is inevitable, we as a firm now operate so differently to February 2020. Back in the 60’s Bob Dylan was strumming and gruffly singing

“…The Times They Are A-Changin’”

The Times always will change, as a firm we can trace our first office opening back to 1884, we got that ominous year, 1984, as for 2084…?