As we near the end of what we can all agree has been a unique year, partners are being asked to sum up the challenges and lessons of 2020. Covid-19 has obviously had an effect globally, of varying degrees in different countries depending on the severity of the outbreaks and the levels of governmental interference in daily life to combat that. In Hong Kong this crisis came off the back of the anti-government protests which had rocked the SAR’s markets for almost a year before. While those had caused some temporary shutdowns around the Central Business District, these were more sporadic and did not lead to the seismic and near-universal shift to a working-from-home policy which came as a result of the virus. Maybe earlier events gave Hong Kong offices an advantage in adjusting to the new schemes and setting up remote working facilities effectively and efficiently, who knows? It certainly cannot have hurt.
Feedback from firm management has invariably focused on two things: a positive, can-do spirit and an embrace of technology. Lawyers are by nature conservative beings so having to fundamentally adjust working protocols that had been in place for decades almost instantaneously caused the biggest jolt the profession has seen since the emergence of the Internet and the universal introduction of email as a primary communication device. Email removed the inevitable time-delays incurred by unavoidable reliance on regular land/sea/air mail. The earlier introduction of the fax machine had enabled documents to be transferred instantly (or at least quickly, barring complications which seemed inherent to the system) but email made the world smaller, enabling swift and extensive communication across time zones. Working days could be extended beyond standard office hours. No longer would a fortnight in Tuscany mean a complete break from working life.
With the outbreak, remote working technology seems to have given rise to a new, altogether more altruistic culture. Firms have realised that being present in the office is not essential, so it’s increasingly possible, even encouraged, that lawyers to work from home for a portion of every week. With concerns mounting in the industry about the effects of stress and long working hours on mental health, this is a welcome development. Lawyers with families can make it easier to combine work and family life. The reduction on commuting saves time, energy, stress and is also a benefit to the environment. Office space could be reduced. In-person meetings can be supplanted by online video conferencing.
Nothing has really advanced technologically in the last year beyond normal levels, what we have seen is the increasing acceptance, embracing and utilisation of the tools available. A shift in attitude. Sometimes a crisis provides an opportunity for positive change.