Douglas Mill: Journal of the plague year

Douglas Mill

Douglas Mill looks at the handling of the current crisis and its likely outcomes for the profession.

I’ll save you googling it. It was Daniel Defoe in 1772 writing about London in 1665. And here’s another quote for you: “The people did not flee the city. Some shut themselves inside their homes, thinking the self-imposed quarantine would spare them from the disease.” The Telegraph last week? No – a report on the Plague of Justinian which ran rife in the Middle East for about 150 years. And, yes, I remember my gran talking about the Spanish Flu which was with us 100 years ago.

My point being COVID may be new, but plagues (and I would contend that emotive historical term is now where we are at) are not. The End of History was always as ridiculous a concept as you could get.

But this time it should have been different. Yes, globalisation carries risks – and this is one of them – but hygiene and science should be at least partial protection.

Our problem is twofold. The first is the fact that medical science has made such stunning progress that death is now so postponed and alien to us that our society almost cannot now deal with it head on.

The second is that we have now realised that the fate of the country lies not just in the hands of what we all clearly realise are a bunch of dysfunctional, self-serving geek politicians, but also a civil service which is now so amateur, smug and unworldly that it is now absolutely dangerous. I have often said, thank God we don’t insure them under the Master Policy. Normally we all know just how chronically pathetic they are but reach the conclusion that it doesn’t much matter that their default position is economy with the truth, delay and obfucscation. Until it does. Because lives are at stake.

Where was the contingency planning? Where was the prep? Who couldn’t see the added risk to care homes? Who didn’t close the airports right away? Who took so long to order lockdown?

Now I accept all that is a bit of a personal rant and that I normally confine myself to the interests of the profession – and largely the put upon High Street profession – and here goes. But the scene needed to be set first because this is not just a few weeks of catching up with reading, painting and books. What we are going through is a game-changer for the profession. Some good. Some bad.

And I make no apology for speaking out because hardly anyone else does. Solicitors are great at complaining but few actually do anything about it. And that in my book is almost a betrayal of what the profession should be about.

Fundamentally, the economy is bust for at least 20 years. Worse then WW2. The implications for employment, housing etc are all going to determine the size and nature of our profession. Some of you may be aware of my Scottish golf course bagging madness (stalled at 37 to go). I was talking with the editor of a golf publication last week and he asked me how things were. I told him that 617 courses have closed in Scotland – and not all will reopen. And of those that do, many of them will not survive long term. I anticipate a new equilibrium figure of c.520. I mention that because the same thing will apply in the legal profession. Rumours abound about the three firms the Bank of Scotland has in ‘intensive care’. Not all our present 1,140 or so solicitors firms will survive. I reckon that a more viable number in 4/5 years time will be nearer 800. Too many nice wee firms badly managed need to merge – or even become part of a national brand. COVID will greatly accelerate a change which should be happening anyway.

Working methodologies will change. Trusting home working was a bit of an age thing. Largely, the over 60s suspected staff were at it. IT now makes it not just possible but sensible for two related reasons: a) Some firms are now realising they have leased at top dollar far too much space in bling offices. With properly ordered home working they can probably significantly cut a chunk of overhead, and b) commuting is unbelievably inefficient. Bear with me for a wee sum. Forty minutes commute, each way, twice a day. Five days a week, 47 weeks a year means for a typical high street firm with, say 12 staff, including solicitors, about 3,000 wasted hours. For a larger firm with,say, 240 staff a waste of over 70,000 hours. And think of the saving on carbon. Bad enough in Scotland but plug in London commuting times and it becomes a huge number.

Some firms are working through this prudently. Necessity has been the mother of invention. Many tell me there has been no immediate impact on fee income. But the work will start to wind down.

And a lower equilibrium point will be reached. And we have absolutely no idea whatsoever about a timeline. Because we left it all to politicians and civil servants. And that was always going to turn out badly.

Tags: coronavirus

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