By David Coutts
The pandemic has brought seismic changes on family life – and delivered an unexpected consequence in the way many couples are approaching the issue of separation or divorce.
For many people, enforced time at home (and away from the daily grind) has been beneficial, particularly for those rediscovering the joys of spending more time with their children.
But for every such case, there is a counter story – one where lockdown has been the final straw in an already fractured relationship.
That’s where I am seeing a transformation in how couples are dealing with such relationship breakdowns. A year of lockdown has left many determined to “make up for lost time”, which means they are far more ready to compromise.
Previously it was more common to see divorces approached on an “entitlement” basis. Once property, pensions and other assets had been totted up, parties would be determined to exact their full entitlement. Down that road lies months of wrangling and inflated legal bills.
Now there is a change in mindset and a focus on pragmatism and problem-solving. People are far more aware that time is precious and they are ready to accept a little less in their financial settlement if it means a faster resolution. They want to get on with living.
Whether this is a long-term shift in attitudes, we’ll wait and see. But what is clear to me is that the pandemic has been an accelerant for all sorts of other changes in family law and beyond.
The role of a lawyer remains to advise clients of their legal claims and rights. However, clients now want things done differently and to have greater control of the process.
For me, three key themes are now front of mind for clients: cost, responsiveness and efficiency. While those considerations have been ever-present, they are now more pertinent than ever.
During lockdown, we’ve grown accustomed to convenience and commerce at our fingertips. Businesses have had to adapt to survive. We all know which pandemic shopping or customer service experiences we would recommend, and those we will never use again. Family law is no different.
At Simpson & Marwick, our constant focus is on more innovative ways to provide clients with a high-quality, value for money service. Technology is at the forefront of that.
We have taken the time to understand how clients want to communicate with their lawyers. Some prefer face-to-face or email, while others want to use instant messaging apps. We’ve created platforms for our clients to get responsive and effective communication – when they need it.
Everyone now expects to be able to track their online deliveries. Likewise, clients want to know the status of their case at any time. Going days or even weeks with no update from your lawyer is no longer accepted.
When it comes to costs, clients are often faced with intimidating hourly rates and given no idea how many hours their case may entail. This isn’t helped by the fact that significant legal fees are incurred by time-consuming internal processes and dated systems.
Everything our firm does is aimed at removing or streamlining those processes – for example, being able to make one click of a mouse generate a properly formatted and relevant document, instead of sending staff off to the archives and relying on admin staff. This makes the process quicker and reduces costs for clients.
It’s not possible to predict fees in every case, but we must become more transparent. That doesn’t mean spending less time in contact with the client to reduce the hours “clocked”. In family law, clients should not feel apprehension when contacting their lawyer for advice. We should be affable and accessible.
The pandemic has helped deliver proof that this approach works – evident in the fact that we now have clients, all over Scotland, with whom we have built strong and healthy relationships without ever having met face-to-face.