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A year into COVID-19, the pandemic has had a fundamental impact on the working lives of barristers across the UK. Rebecca Morgan of LexisNexis, asks Stuart Wright, barrister at 1 Crown Office Row, for his perspective on the opportunities and challenges of paperless and remote working at the Bar.
The transition from paper to paperless (or ‘paper-lite’) can be quite a journey. Since 1 Crown Office Row is a relatively large set of chambers with ample resources for investment, it was easier to adopt new technology and adapt to paperless and remote methods of working.
Chambers moved its systems and processes into the cloud in September 2019, so when COVID-19 hit we were fortunately well prepared for the shift to working from home. Although members were already attempting to use cloud systems, many only made the leap fully once lockdown started. When the volume of work dropped significantly due to delays, it was a good opportunity to learn to use all the new technology which we had previously been more hesitant to embrace.
One of my biggest initial concerns working from home was the lack of a printer! But I was quickly able to get used to working primarily on screens, adding an extra monitor or two at home.
There are always moments when you need to scribble down some notes, and there are few tech substitutes which are as simple and fast as a notebook and pen. One solution, however, is ‘Remarkable’ which is sort of like a Kindle, designed to take notes with a stylus.
Another problem relates to the resolution of documents in e-bundles which means that documents can be hard to read. e-bundles have improved over the past year as lawyers have become more used to PDF editing software and courts have issued practice directions, although some further refinement or harmonisation would be helpful.
Attempts to be ‘paper-lite’ often involved a whole bunch of emails with multiple attachments, and in the past it was often easier to ask the clerks to print these out. Chambers addressed this by providing cloud-based upload links which greatly improved the position, and made life a lot easier for our clients.
Going paperless in cases with extensive disclosure in particular is helpful, as it’s possible to bookmark sections, add notes and quickly search through extensive notes.
I’ve used the lockdowns as an opportunity to learn Adobe Pro to consolidate files. I’ve found that the more I have used it, the easier it is to prepare advice and do court work electronically rather than on paper.
Younger members of chambers were more easily able to adapt to working in the cloud without paper. The process was more difficult for senior members, but they generally embraced the changes.
The family and crime teams were ahead of the civil team, as a lot of their case papers were already accessed via court portals.
It is also worth noting that private practice seems to have adapted more easily, with public practice/civil service encountering more challenges due to older systems and larger scales of change.
In general, the courts coped well with changes necessary due to the pandemic. Although some judges were a little ‘hit and miss’ with technology at the start, things got a lot better once the ‘CVP’ was rolled out and everyone became familiar with the technology. Some of the minor grievances are noisy laptop fans and the lack of laptop chargers where several laptops are necessary to display multiple bundles.
For barristers who have spent time working from home on multiple screen setups, attending court in person and manage documents with just a single laptop screen or tablet can feel like a backward step!
Although remote working can help to improve the work/life balance, most barristers still thrive on being part of a physical set of chambers, with its sense of ‘family’ and teamwork.
Video conferencing solutions for social events like team quizzes is no substitute for the loss of individual contact in a physical office, even just the occasional face to face chat. Online team meetings in general can be problematic, as the conversation does not always flow due to the lack of social cues etc.
Being cooped up at home all day can lead to a sense of isolation and create welfare issues, particularly for younger members who live alone. Furthermore, if they are stuck looking at their screens all day, this can be very tiring in itself.
Even once the pandemic is over, an increasing number of chambers will likely decide to reduce overall desk space and introduce more hot desking, encouraging their members to work from home in the long term. Although there are clearly challenges which should be considered in the drive to work remotely and adopt a paperless or ‘paper-lite’ way of working, the Bar has demonstrated that it can be very innovative and adapt to changing circumstances.
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