Douglas Mill sees light at the end of the COVID tunnel for Scotland’s solicitors



Douglas Mill

As we move past the six-month mark with COVID-19 and with further business restriction pending, our sister publication Scottish Legal News asked Douglas Mill, who in the last 12 years has consulted with over 130 firms throughout the country, how things were going for High Street solicitors and how he saw matters playing out.

How is the profession coping?

The answer is mixed. Much depends on areas of practice. If we had seen this coming, then a shift to insolvency, employment law, private client and family would have been smart. It is not easy for firms, big or small, to change direction and work types.

The much-maligned High Street will survive. It got through the banking crash and will get through this, largely because most firms have a range of services, loyal clients and staff, modest accommodation, and were financially prudent. It has to be said, though many are embarrassed to say, but the current executry spike is helping. And on that subject, I seriously cannot understand why young solicitors do not see private client as a sustainable, lucrative area of work. The ‘private client is for losers’ mantra from the big firms (many of whom no longer exist) in the ’90s has done lasting damage.

Lessons to be learned?

Well, primarily that any firms waiting for pre-COVID normal to return are going to be disappointed. To a huge extent this is a real game-changer. The main thing is the acceptance of, and utilisation of, home/remote working. Necessity has been the mother of invention here at all levels.

Thirty years ago, if one of your partners told you he (and it usually then was he) was going to work from home, there would be a nagging suspicion that it involved nine holes of golf and The Times crossword. Now technology and lifestyles have changed that utterly.

So, what does that mean for offices?

Space requirements, especially for larger firms, will be greatly reduced. Vanity projects are hurting even more than pre-COVID. I ran a quick exercise with a larger firm and we worked out that with 240 staff, each with an average 40-minute commute each way, a five-day week and a 47-week working year it had on one view over 75,000 wasted staff hours. Green implications in relation to rush hours, new habits, whatever, I simply do not see the old paradigm being reinstated.

Critical concerns?

With furlough being scaled down and the costs of renewal looming, I see October as the month where there will be lots of redundancies. Sad for the people involved, but sustainability is the name of the game.

All doom and gloom then?

Absolutely not - and for two reasons. The first is that if big firms lay off a few hundred or so solicitors, then there are jobs for a lot of them in the High Street throughout the country. The current conveyancing spike (which I counsel will probably run out in a few months) is best tackled by locums and people looking for part-time and home working.

Adding permanent payroll to cover a blip is not sensible. Longer term, however, there are excellent opportunities for quality career choices out there in places like Linlithgow, North Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Berwickshire, Dunfermline, Bishopbriggs, and Larbert.

And the second?

Happily there are firms who are seeing the pandemic as an opportunity rather than a threat. Apart from youngsters trying to get in the profession, the people I feel sorriest for are the 60-65 year age quartile. COVID has put succession on hold for most of them.

Going into lockdown, I had about 15 deals at various stages, from an initial coffee to Heads of Terms. Within a week I had calls, understandably, from every acquiring firm, saying tell your clients we love them dearly but we cannot make structural decisions at this stage. In fairness, financial decisions need timescales. So, the opportunities for larger firms, coming out the end of this, seeking to add capacity, services, will banks and top line are going to be fantastic.