The evolution of the legal sector through COVID and beyond

Just like lenders and brokers, legal firms also had to rapidly adapt to the challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Our latest Mortgage Visionary, Joe Middleton, Senior Partner at Lightfoots Solicitors – explains how strong leadership, teamwork and trust in their abilities to solve problems helped them overcome the greatest challenge the firm had faced in its 150 year history

Joe Middleton is the Senior Partner at Lightfoots Solicitors. He has considerable experience in conveyancing and complex property matters, and before becoming Senior Partner he created, built, and managed the Lightfoots bridging and specialist finance property team. Whilst still heavily involved with the firm’s mortgage
lender clients, he now focuses more closely on transactions with a commercial property bias alongside managing the practice.

The story of 2020 for the legal industry, and Lightfoots, starts no differently to any others. We all thought we were quite progressive with the right balance of traditional work delivered with modern practices and techniques and, sufficiently versatile to withstand whatever the world could throw at us. Then 2020 showed us all our vulnerabilities.

“We can’t do that because…” are the words clients, brokers or lenders don’t want to hear, but to keep that phrase to a minimum you need to be agile, flexible and confident in your own ability. When the pandemic hit and lockdown was forced upon us, many were simply not agile or flexible enough and didn’t believe in their own ability. At no point did I think that COVID would be the demise of Lightfoots, a firm that has existed for circa 150 years before me, but now my partners and I faced a challenge greater than any of our predecessors had.

We had a loyal and strong client base, a plentiful pipeline of work and people willing to be flexible to ensure the work could get done, but key to our success in 2020 was a fantastic senior management team. Finance, IT, HR and Marketing all played a huge role at key times when we most needed them to step up. The old adage goes ‘lawyers first, businessmen second’ so we needed that input and expertise and we certainly got it. In the space of 3 weeks the IT budget was torn up and 95% of the firm were working remotely delivering the service to the standard needed.

It was crucial that we continued to be contactable by clients and brokers. Phone and email was never as important and that ‘how can we help?’ outlook to salvage an otherwise dying deal made all the difference. Brokers are so often the party that has to guide the ir client on who can best help them deliver the timeframe they need, so if our communication and commitment had appeared lacking, the confidence by third parties would soon have disappeared too.

The Lightfoots specialist finance team have ingrained into them that they are here to solve a problem, not present one. Sometimes a solution is beyond us but within the reach of others. Using brokers and other third parties to chase down and gain information is crucial as is making great use of their contacts and ability to communicate with others beyond what is available to us.

Quick decision making was also key. We met regularly (daily for many weeks and at all times of day and night) and once we’d decided on a course of action, we implemented it swiftly and didn’t look back. I am sure we made mistakes along the way but anyone who tells me they didn’t during that time probably didn’t really make any decisions at all.

Now we are in 2021, with work volumes as high as ever and the firm firing on all cylinders once more, it is a good time to look back and see how Lightfoots has evolved. Many still work remotely, technology (including a hugely developed case management system, new telephone system and use of facial recognition software) now plays a significant role alongside the two traditional ingredients that mustn’t be left out of any business: hard work and a committed work force. Without them, the best technology, the biggest investment or the best marketing campaign can only paper over cracks for so long. In the legal industry in 2021, being good and providing clients, lenders or brokers with most of what they want, most of the time isn’t enough to be the best. I don’t want Lightfoots to be just good. To be the best we have to take the things that have made us a regional heavy weight for decades and embrace the evolution that was thrust upon us over the past year.

What hasn’t changed are great people and that’s where our biggest investment and expenditure over the coming years will be. The individuals who stood firm when we most needed it are why clients come back, why business is frequently referred and why people ask for our fee earners by name. They like our case management system, they like how contactable we are, but most of all they like our team and the fact they can get them on the phone and have a real conversation.