As the international legal industry begins returning to offices in force this month, we take a look back at some of the highs and lows of the past 18 months.
From the joy of new puppies and long-postponed weddings, to the sadness of bereavements and being separated from family, the below stories are intended to share a little humanity from the difficult period we have all experienced.
Justin D’Agostino, chief executive of Herbert Smith Freehills, would have usually been spending a lot of the past 18 months traveling the firm’s global network. But the pandemic meant instead he was able to spend most of the time based in Hong Kong with his partner KC.
“Having traveled relentlessly for over a decade and spent almost every Sunday evening in an airport, the positive of the past 17 months has been that I’ve finally got to know my long term partner of 17 years! (He may have a different view!) The worst aspect though has been that I haven’t seen an airport lounge in 17 months, which means I haven’t seen my mother in Scotland or my colleagues around the network. I guess that world tour as the new CEO will have to wait.”
Paul Stothard, dispute resolution partner at Norton Rose Fulbright was working overseas in Dubai when COVID-19 hit. But some friendly local wildlife provided some much needed company.
“The pandemic reminded those of us working overseas (in my case, in Dubai) that we took travel for granted. In international arbitration, lockdown ended live hearings and we had to adopt technological solutions for everything from meetings to full trials. The technology is excellent and it reduces time and costs and opens up the chance for a more responsible approach to travel. I doubt we will return to the wasteful and lavish practices of the past.
Dubai had a draconian but brief lockdown. For me, it was a pleasant period in which to work from home and spend time with my children. One highlight was getting on first-name terms with a friendly oryx who had taken to grazing on a patch of wasteland near our house. For eight months this year, the U.K. banned travel from the UAE and UK nationals had to hotel quarantine for eleven days upon entry. Few of us can do that on a regular basis and we all have stories of missing important family occasions of all kinds, some of which are heart-breaking.
My family had to relocate back to the UK shortly before these restrictions came in. Being apart for months at a time has been difficult for all of us. The rules were lifted in August and it was wonderful to finally get home and see the children perceptibly raise their eyes from their iPads in joy.”
One law firm media relations manager in London writes about the joy of being able to spend time with his newborn baby:
“My son was born in August 2019. I’d started going back to work in September and was already very moody about missing out on so much of his life because I’d see him for 30 mins to an hour in the morning, while rushing to get out the door, but he’d be asleep by the time I got home.
However, that all changed in March 2020 when we all went home. While COVID was terrible for so many people I can’t help but think it was the best time of my life. I’ve got to see him crawl for the first time, take his first steps, talk for the first time, I’ve not missed a bathtime etc. I’ve also got to see my wife a lot more (she’s a primary school teacher and was on maternity leave) which has been incredible. Just being able to have those micro breaks where I could see them both has been amazing.
My wife returned to work full time yesterday so he’s in nursery full time now. It’s a lot quieter in the house and I don’t get my micro breaks as the cat doesn’t particularly care for me…“
Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk law, found lockdowns with her family “intense but satisfying”, and enjoyed making friends with cats during evening walks during the first U.K. lockdown.
“The family side was intense but satisfying and it brought us closer together. I started a podcast with my 9 year old, Kids Law; got into making countless Finnish cinnamon buns; my daughter kept us entertained singing songs from the musical Annie…
We walked a lot during the first U.K. lockdown late in the evenings – the leaves were so green and shiny, the air fresh and the silence was great. We made friends with so many cats and we gave them all names. We also got into online piano competitions and spent lots of weekends trying to record for them.
But the worst moment was by far having a loved one in a care home; the visits at the window in the rain, and then dressed up with masks and personal protection equipment was heartbreaking. Losing my mother-in-law at the end of it all was really the worst. Having team members get COVID and struggling and also not being able to be with their families including when they lost loved ones was difficult.”
John Croft, CEO of Elevate and his family experienced the frustration of having to delay a wedding several times… but were able to finally celebrate his daughter Steph and her new husband in August.
“When our daughter’s boyfriend proposed to her in August 2019, like most newly engaged couples, they looked ahead excitedly to planning their big day. The ensuing two years served some incredibly tough challenges, including the heartache of losing all four of their grandfathers, amplified by enforced separation when our families needed each other most.
However last month, only two weeks after Boris lifted the wedding restrictions (and after three moved wedding dates!) we were finally able to hold Steph and Justin’s dream wedding – and it was an utterly fabulous day!”
Yetunde Dania was promoted to partner at U.K. firm Trowers & Hamlins in April. Other lockdown wins for her included getting a puppy, losing weight and becoming head of the firm’s Birmingham office.
“It’s been a bittersweet time due to the pandemic as it has been so hard for everyone, adjusting to a new way of living and like so many, I’ve experienced a number of bereavements during that time. Losing weight has been on my to do list for forever and the pandemic has really shown me how important it is to incorporate movement into my daily life both for my physical and mental wellbeing. I managed to lose a significant amount of weight as I took up skipping and rebounding as a way to look after my mental health.
One upside of being at home more is that it’s enabled me to get a puppy! Her name is Kenya. She brings me endless joy as she has a great personality. I got her at 8 weeks and boy, was that an awakening for the first couple of months. She has really helped my household to have a focus away from the pandemic and as a result she’s spoiled rotten.”
The most frustrating thing to cope with has been not seeing family and friends, but thank goodness for Zoom. During lockdowns, I’ve most missed lunches with my girlfriends and foreign holidays! When worldwide restrictions are fully lifted, I’d love an extended holiday to somewhere that has wall to wall sun.”
Rachael Carolan, General Counsel at what3words celebrated her engagement with her partner, but was unable to see family in other countries.
“My best moment of the period was getting engaged immediately before the first lockdown to my partner Emily and receiving news that I will become an Auntie for the first time. The worst was being asked to “shield” due to a health condition and not being able to see my brother (lives in Amsterdam) and sister (lives in Berlin) from March 2020 until just this week.”
Herbert Smith Freehills lawyer Michael Aherne enjoyed his virtual promotion round, but missed the noise of City pubs.
“Going through a promotion process remotely had both its benefits and disadvantages. You have a greater degree of control in remote interview situations which allows you to better manage your emotions and keep on message. On the other hand when working from home you don’t have the same ability to pop your head into someone’s office and ask them how things are going.
It hasn’t felt too unusual being promoted during a period of general remote working (although admittedly I have nothing to compare it to). I suspect that is because by the time I became a partner (May 2021) both the firm and clients had become accustomed to the situation and had adapted.
Obviously the possibility of meeting up with other new partners to exchange ideas was not possible due to COVID, but the firm did a great job of organising a virtual conference to help establish the network and introduce everyone. I’m looking forward to being able to connect in person once restrictions are fully lifted.
I’ve missed a lot of the mundane things I largely took for granted before lockdown. Seeing (and not talking to) regular commuters on my train, the sound of the crowd outside the White Horse pub on a Thursday/Friday night, wearing a suit and tie to a meeting, catching up with colleagues over a coffee in the communal area, sharing a joke in the office, the excitement/stress of face to face negotiations.
I’m not sure how many of those things will come back and I’m sure by October I’ll be moaning about my commute and complaining about the noise from the pub.”
Laura Brunnen was a partner at law firms King & Wood Mallesons and Reed Smith before realising during the pandemic that she no longer enjoyed the life of a corporate lawyer.
“Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can get clarity. After 20 years as a corporate M&A lawyer (and 10 years as a partner) juggling that with 100% responsibility for the childcare and homeschooling during the pandemic was overwhelming.
Something had to change. For the first time I considered what I actually wanted and how I could best put my skills, values and strengths to use. So I got off the treadmill to set up my own business. As well as working with corporate clients I’m also working with small businesses. I love seeing the immediate impact my advice is giving them.”
Meanwhile Allan Compton QC of London Chambers 2 Bedford Row had a lot of furry co-workers during the pandemic, when his golden retriever Wilma had six puppies. You can read his full experience here.
“They have been extraordinarily good albeit initially quite stressful. The sheer happiness they generate by their enthusiasm for everything and the unconditional affection they give you is so uplifting. I think as a family has brought us all together. It certainly completely quashed the claustrophobic tedium of lockdown.”
Law firm consultant and former partner Laura Durrant found home-schooling harder than expected, but enjoyed the sanctuary of her garden shed:
“Best: realising that the garden shed/office/gym I’d built in 2019 was worth the money after being somewhat worried that it would be an expensive home for spiders.
Worst: without a doubt, home schooling. It robbed me of any lingering illusions that I have any real authority over my children when they are determined not to do something.”
With reporting by Hannah Roberts and Varsha Patel.