The pandemic has brought bricks-and-mortar businesses to a near halt around the world. During the outbreak of COVID-19, most law firms have split their teams into working in office and at home on a roster basis. For some firms, the default work mode has been home office unless special circumstances “entitle” staff to work in office.
It is amazing how a shock can change habits and traditions so quickly, though for some, the change this time may not be entirely voluntary. The need to adopt technological tools (eg remote access software and video conferencing software etc), which did not seem so pressing before as to warrant an immediate change, has now become a top priority as a business continuity measure.
It is worth noting that the Government has launched some funding programmes to encourage the adoption of innovation and technology. I have earlier introduced the Government’s Technology Vouchers Programme (“TVP”) that may be suitable to law firms (http://www.hk-lawyer.org/content/funding-technological-enhancements). TVP aims to enhance the competitiveness of local small and medium businesses by helping them equip themselves with technological solutions to transform business processes and improve productivity. As announced in the 2020-21 Budget, the Government will enhance TVP with effect from 1 April 2020 to further assist enterprises in making use of technology to improve their business operation. The Government’s funding ratio in each approved project has been raised from two-thirds to three-quarters and the funding ceiling has been increased from HK$400,000 to HK$600,000.
In the long run and to stay ahead of the game, it is certainly advisable to be equipped with tools that allow us more options to adapt to changes of the modern age, some of which may be sudden and unpredictable.
Talking about adaptability, the need of social distancing during the pandemic has given rise to creative ways of social interaction. In the context of the prevalence of home office, interesting ideas like regular virtual lunches, virtual drinks, virtual happy hours and online quizzes and tournaments are being introduced by firms to maintain the team spirit and help address any negative feeling of isolation among staff.
Another area which is under close scrutiny for change is the admission process. You may recall the implementation of the 3 + 3 + 4 New Academic Structure in 2012. As a result, two cohorts of students (one from Form 7 under the old curriculum and one from senior secondary 3 under the new curriculum) were admitted to universities in September 2012. University places were increased to accommodate both cohorts of students at the same time. The bulk of the double cohorts of students accepted into law schools in 2012 were ready to apply for admission as solicitors in 2019 after four years of LLB, one year of PCLL and two years of traineeship. The number of applicants for admission in 2019 was thus more than previous years. As of the end of 2019, we have issued 753 certificates of eligibility for admission, compared to 654 in 2018. The increased number of applicants is believed to have caused an unusually long waiting time for an admission hearing by the Court. The unsatisfactory delay was exacerbated by the general adjournment of court proceedings since 29 January 2020 owing to concerns about the public health condition. The outbreak of COVID-19 has exposed the limitations of the admission proceedings in their current form. Within the permissible remit of the statutory provisions which govern the admission proceedings, offering an option of a more streamlined procedure by way of paper disposal by the Court will be a welcomed solution. Hopefully, this will reduce the prolonged waiting time for a hearing date and enable eligible applicants to be admitted as soon as possible.
To tackle the unprecedented issues arising from the pandemic, we need flexibility and creativity to rethink what needs to be improved to cope with the changing circumstances. The common challenges confronting the community as a whole have heightened, more than ever, our awareness of the importance to handle the future uncertainty with patience and resilience and to treat one another with generosity and respect. This way the pandemic can be a game changer for the better.