Diana Bentley details how working practices of private client lawyers are changing during the aftermath of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic


It arrived suddenly and was almost unimaginable in its scope. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK in early 2020 and the first lockdown on 23 March plunged businesses around the country into extreme and unfamiliar territory. More than most legal practice areas, private client lawyers had to address changes in their clients’ needs and dramatically alter the way they delivered their services. The highest concern about the effect of the pandemic among lawyers was among those working in this field, according to a Law Society survey in May 2020. Now with restrictions eased, it is apparent that although some changes to their working will not be permanent, others are here to stay.  

The pandemic’s immediate effect 

The onset of the pandemic resulted in some private client lawyers having an upsurge in work. “It reminded everyone that they weren’t invincible,” says David King, a partner at Harrison Clark Rickerbys. “Many people wanted to complete what they’d been considering but put off – like making a will or a power of attorney. The enforced isolation also prompted people to get their other affairs in order, so we did a lot of trust reviews and examined other documents to ensure they were fit for purpose.” 

Managing standard procedures proved challenging and delivering services remotely demanded special care. Lawyers found the remote will-signing rules cumbersome and had to adopt various measures to ensure that documents could still be signed in person. King’s team used a gazebo in the firm’s car park to meet with clients and sign documents. 

Sarah Cornish, partner and head of wills, trusts and probate at Coodes, says that while they had previously seen all elderly clients personally, her team oversaw some signings in gardens. When clients signed wills outside without a lawyer present, the firm followed up to ensure they had been properly completed. 

The pandemic also caused seismic changes to office working arrangements. “We allowed flexible working before the pandemic, but overnight we all changed to working from home (WFH),” reports Stuart Adams, partner at Mishcon de Reya and a committee member of the Law Society’s Private Client Section. “We used MS Teams and Zoom for remote meetings although some clients still wanted to meet in person where possible.” 

Longer-term changes 

Such changes to working life have not ceased with the end of lockdown as their advantages have been demonstrated, although their continued use is tempered with caution. “The use of video calls for meetings can work really well and makes us more accessible to some clients, who find it difficult to travel to our offices,” says Cornish. “However, some people are less comfortable with video calls or don’t have the necessary technology. People choose a local solicitor as they want personal service, so many of our clients, especially elderly ones, still want to see us face to face. Where possible, we’ll always give clients the choice. It’s about providing flexibility and treating each client in the most appropriate way.” 

Graphic of figure in storm

© omadoig@btinternet.com

Meanwhile, the widespread success of remote working has transformed office management. Its benefits include saving time on travel and helping promote a better work / life balance. Many firms now consider a blend of working in the office and WFH to be the ideal and have adopted or updated flexible working policies to allow for this. Lawyers – and their clients – often welcome this development. “I enjoy the flexibility I have,” says Adams. “My working arrangements now depend on my work commitments and especially whether clients want to meet in person, although our clients generally embrace remote working as not having to travel is convenient for them.” 

The continuing challenge, lawyers say, is getting the balance right. While fee-earners can often WFH more freely, others – such as support staff – may need to be in the office more often. The main focus, King insists, must be how best to get the job done: “You must oversee people’s diaries to ensure that everyone is informed of the arrangements.” A major consideration too, assert King, Adams and others, is the need to provide good support for junior colleagues. “For them, working closely with more experienced lawyers in person is important. A lot of learning how to do the job isn’t just technical but seeing how more senior lawyers handle things. Young people, including trainees, have also missed out on the fun of working together and getting to know their colleagues,” King notes. 

Different firms are adopting varying approaches to flexible working. King is keen generally to preserve the sense of camaraderie in his team and wants to return as many people to the office as possible. Cornish’s firm will adopt a hybrid working model for its teams with staff being in the office on set days, with appointments booked in, to ensure the right cover is provided. Junior colleagues and paralegals will be in the office full-time. “There are pros and cons to remote working, including the risk of feeling isolated. We hope the hybrid model will give our people the best of both worlds and provide our junior colleagues with good contact with senior staff,” Cornish says. 

Particular concerns

For all its attractions, however, remote working has presented particular issues for private client lawyers and will continue to do so now it’s become common practice. “Right from the start of the pandemic, we were aware that there are potential issues around undue influence and capacity when dealing with private clients through phone and video calls,” Cornish says. “Previously, we always saw clients in person, which makes it easier to take instructions and judge capacity.” The special measures Coodes took during lockdown to protect its clients when lawyers couldn’t meet in person to discuss matters or execute documents included issuing a preliminary questionnaire which was followed up with a video appointment. “With elderly clients, we tried to see them outdoors in person, when we were allowed to. This included travelling to their homes to witness will signings outdoors. Now, we’ll always use the questionnaire even if we see the client later personally, as we’ve decided it affords better protection.” 

Measures, such as panning a camera around the room when conducting online meetings, can be useful too, but assessing capacity is still a challenge for King: “You can’t gauge what is unspoken when you’re working remotely so well, and it’s especially hard when you’re dealing with more complex documents.” When his team has particular concerns, it will continue to use an independent capacity assessor. “Time will tell if more cases of challenging capacity emerge from the time of the pandemic when many things – like making wills – were done remotely. More people now are aware that wills can be challenged,” he notes. 

For Fiona Heald, a partner at Moore Barlow and Private Client Section committee member, the lockdown presented real challenges because many of her clients are in care homes. “Not being able to access clients made it difficult to get instructions, especially when they had hearing issues and they weren’t always able to use the phone,” she comments. “Most don’t use technology and don’t want a staff member with them during a call. The issue of coercion has been a problem, but the biggest issue is determining if people have capacity to see if they were under Court of Protection jurisdiction. Now, we’re able to obtain mental capacity assessments and instructions.” 

For the future, Heald suspects that many court hearings will be held remotely, especially short case management or direction hearings, but some attendant drawbacks must be navigated. “These hearings save the cost and time of travel but for people with hearing issues it can be harder,” she remarks. “Also, while a client and I can be in the same room, with the barrister in a different place, it can be difficult to get questions or comments across. I’m also not sure if it’s a good idea to have full hearings remotely, as people like to have their day in court and feel they’ve been heard. But it’s going to be up to the individual judge to decide on a case-by-case basis how matters are handled.”

Training and recruitment 

The pandemic’s effect on training, while immediate, may not be so long-lasting. “Our training covers technical and soft skills and, of course, it all had to be done online during the pandemic. Conferences were also cancelled,” Adams reports. Face-to-face training though has been missed by many firms, including his. “In technical training especially, not much is lost if it’s done remotely. But you miss the impromptu conversations you have with face-to-face training and conferences. They’re great for building relationships and networking. Now, we’re relishing attending conferences again and the Private Client Section is relaunching training events for members,” he says. 

At Harrison Clark Rickerbys, too, all technical training will continue to be done virtually but as part of a combined approach. “There’s a drive to get more in-person events back on,” explains King. “We’re glad to be attending private client networking events in our area again. Networking is a large part of what we do.” 

Recruiting too has altered due to the acceptance of remote working. “Our catchment area has increased significantly. People who live further afield from our London office can join us as they don’t have to be in the office constantly,” says Adams, who now has one lawyer based in Edinburgh. 

Another advantage, says Sarah Cornish, is that team members who live further from the office can visit clients in their area, which can widen her firm’s reach. Yet this entails risks too and firms can have valued colleagues poached more easily. 

“My view is still that in this field of practice you need to build relationships in your local market and that depends on being present and doing your marketing there,” declares King.  


Firms say they’re still experiencing delays in dealing with government departments and courts because of the ongoing disruption caused by COVID-19, which at times can be blamed on the firm and also cause delays in payment. For the future, King is concerned about what he calls “the race for the bottom” on pricing for private client matters which the pandemic could have exacerbated: “Many people view this as an easy area of practice and you have less-qualified people or online legal services offering work in areas like will-writing at low cost. They’re offering a product, not bespoke advice, which is another reason why we could see increasing levels of inheritance disputes arising out of the pandemic.” 

What is clear to lawyers and others now is how rapidly dramatic change can occur, says Adams. “We must consider how agile we can be. We’ve weathered the pandemic well, which has given us confidence. But we must consider how we manage any future crisis. This should now be part of all our contingency plans.”