David Patient: Facing the challenges of the pandemic

Overview

David Patient reflects on Travers Smith's response to the pandemic, his role as Managing Partner during that period, and how the challenges of the last 18 months have demonstrated the strength of the Firm's culture. 

We will be remembered first and foremost for how we treated our people. I am enormously proud of the work we have done.

One of the great privileges of my previous role as Managing Partner was to welcome the new trainees and vacation schemers on their first days at the Firm.1 It always gave me a great sense of nostalgia. It also made me feel terribly old! I was a summer vacation schemer at Travers Smith in 1988. The Firm's commitment to its core values was clear to me back then, and I quickly realised that this was a place where I could feel at home. The culture was incredibly supportive, and the Firm excelled at getting the best out of every team member. There was also a huge emphasis on letting people be themselves, which was unusual in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was a trainee (or articled clerk as we were known then). I knew that, in this slightly smaller environment, my work would be recognised. 

Around half of our partners started their careers as trainees at Travers Smith

I am so sorry for those of you who have had your school or university education disrupted by the pandemic. The key message I can give you is to really back yourself. Academic results are only one factor in what it takes to be a great lawyer. We have a very strong record of developing our trainees into some of the best lawyers in the City of London, and progressing them to partner level. At Travers Smith, you will receive exceptional training and be given exposure to clients and matters that you may not get at any other firm. We do remind our trainees that this is a marathon, not a sprint. It seems cliché, but they can trust us to train them and set an appropriate pace. 

We got on top of the situation early, and that made all the difference. 

At the end of January 2020, I was sitting next to the managing partner of a Singaporean law firm at a dinner in Zurich. He told me about the Covid precautions they were taking at his firm, including certifying you had not recently been to Hong Kong or mainland China, and temperature testing before coming into the office. I remember thinking, this is really happening! Across the UK at that time, I think we were all still in denial. The following day, I called a meeting with our HR team to discuss our response to the Covid threat, and we then met pretty much every morning at 8h15 until the end of June 2021. We rolled out our next generation laptops to support the move to remote working, and we closed the office in an organised manner a week before the national lockdown. We had no idea if it would be successful, moving nearly 800 people to work from their home offices, which were really bedrooms and kitchens for many. Would our clients continue instructing us? Would we get paid for our work? Thankfully the answer to all of this was yes. 

We did not move our teams onto reduced salaries, took no government money, and made no redundancies. We seconded people from our Business Services teams into different teams across the Firm, and supported them to develop new skills. Of course, a certain amount of our work went on hold at first, but it soon turned out that we could work incredibly efficiently for clients. Clients who were also in lockdown found significant business opportunities, and our work got busier and busier. It was tough but we stayed true to our core values and made sure we looked after our people through this period.  

The pandemic revealed the strength of our culture.

Travers Smith's culture was one of the key things that attracted me to the Firm in the late 1980s, and the Covid crisis has demonstrated just how strong our desire to support one another is. Partners regularly took the burden of the workload so that junior lawyers could get a break, and our associates launched creative projects to keep the team healthy. Two associates approached me in January of this year to try and get some momentum behind people exercising. Following this we created the 'Travers Smith Distance Challenge', which was just fantastic fun. We were put in teams of eight and, over six weeks, we accumulated as many miles as we could; on rowing machines, static bikes, and by cycling, running and walking. We then submitted our distance using the Strava app. We had over 400 people take part, and our total distance was the equivalent of travelling around the world three times! This kind of creativity and support defined how our team interacted throughout the pandemic. We often felt closer together, despite being physically further apart.

We have an opportunity now to develop a better approach to work.

We now have the chance to make the most of the digital revolution and strive for a better work-life balance. We have learned the potential of zoom calls, and remote working is here to stay for those who want it. That said, I cannot imagine a return to remote working five days a week; our people have returned to the office, most days, in large numbers. We have missed being together, and for our junior lawyers, their development is accelerated by being in our shared rooms, working closely with partners and more senior associates.

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