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Summer holidays for solicitors – should they be allowed?

Summer holidays for solicitorsSummer holidays for solicitors sounds like a great idea. Or does it? Of course, everyone deserves a holiday – especially a hard-working solicitor. Unfortunately, however much you look forward to holidays, they can present problems.

The problems can be seen in all types of transactional legal work. They are particularly visible in conveyancing cases.

The way in which you handle holiday cover for your firm will not just have an impact upon you. It will affect many others in a conveyancing chain. So, let’s look at the problems and try to work out the best solutions.

What usually happens?

When you return from your summer holidays, what do you come back to? Is it a clear desk and a clear conscience? Or is it a volley of complaints from clients who could not contact you?

Conveyancing can end up being a very drawn out process. So, if a lawyer is away for one week out of the national average conveyancing time of 16 weeks, is it really such a big deal? You wouldn’t think so, but clients see things differently. The idea that their lawyer may not be available causes panic. They assume that it will cause their sale or purchase to fall through.

It can be made even worse by lawyers who evade the issue. Realising their clients will panic, they avoid telling them altogether. This results in a nasty surprise when the client (or agent) calls in and finds they are not available. It’s like being between a rock and a hard place.

From the lawyer’s point of view, it’s also troublesome. Returning to a barrage of complaints from disgruntled clients isn’t appealing. It makes you wonder whether taking the holiday was worth it in the first place?

How is the information stored?

Many conveyancing lawyers store a mine of information – in their heads. It’s not actually written down anywhere. So, when they are away or change jobs, it disappears into the ether.

For clients, this causes major disruption. When another lawyer has to pick up the case, it can be like going back to square one. Clients who have to repeat themselves and re-provide information are not happy bunnies.

Small firms have it tough.

In a small firm or a sole-trader set-up, things are more difficult. Asking a colleague to cover for you may be out of the question.

Using cover provided by locums can lead to more problems than it solves. If you have a case management system, will the locum be familiar with it? The fact that he or she is also unfamiliar with your case load and operating procedures is a hurdle in itself. It makes you wonder if it’s worth going down this route at all.

The solution?

There are two areas to consider when looking for a solution: communication and technology.

Communication.

If you are a small firm or a sole-trader your options for cover may be limited. That means that one of your few key assets lies in managing client expectations. At the outset of a case, inform the client clearly about all the main case milestones and the likely times that these will be completed. If things overrun or underrun, let them know promptly.

By doing this, you strengthen your clients’ trust in you, and this helps to limit their capacity to panic. In addition, tell clients upfront that you are likely to be on holiday during the course of the matter. Give them dates and times. Then, inform them how things will be handled in the event of your absence.

Technology.

Case management technology will help you on a number of levels.

Firstly, a decent case management system will allow you to share case information with your colleagues who may be able to provide cover. Giving them the opportunity to familiarise themselves with your caseload prior to your departure will expedite matters for clients.

Secondly, if your case management system operates workflows, you are ahead of the game. Workflows can be set up to deal with a wide range of work types where a systematic approach is required. For example, in conveyancing you can capture and schedule when mortgage offers are received, or searches are ordered. This reduces reliance on you being around all the time.

Thirdly, good case management technology should allow the integration of your calendar. This will allow you to provide warning in advance to both colleagues and clients.

Fourthly, modern case management systems permit clients to access a client portal. Portals are accessed by secure logon and allow you to provide as much or as little case information to your clients as you see fit. It’s analogous with online shopping status updates – something most clients take for granted.

Finally, if all else fails, modern, cloud-based case management systems really do allow you to work from anywhere. If a crisis arises during your absence, you can access the case and matter files from your laptop, tablet or phone and work on them as if you were in the office. Obviously, if you take this step, you may be wondering what the point of the holiday was! However, as a solution to an urgent problem, it does deliver the goods.

In summary.

What clients want is a consistent approach and your availability. They are reluctant to put up with failings caused by lack of holiday cover of one form or another. Introducing some or all of these approaches will give you a chance both to reduce client panic levels and take pleasure in your hard-earned time off.

Enjoy your holidays!

Mike O’Donnell, June 2019.

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