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

Marilyn Stowe, definitely not working from home...

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.

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 Pigott) 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 makeup, 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 business women who had flown in to 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 child care. 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 on line 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 new found 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 foresees 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 child care.

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’ve experienced an isolated lifestyle longer than them all. Come the end of this pandemic, and it might take a couple of years, Im convinced there will be a mass return to the office, the roots of the work place 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.

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This article first appeared in Today’s Family Lawyer.

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