Shoosmiths associate Dan Goddard discusses agile working, tech and joining the firm just before the first lockdown
It’s been an eventful year for Dan Goddard, commercial/TMT associate, Shoosmiths — he started a new job, went into lockdown one month later, adjusted to remote working while meeting his new colleagues, and also managed to move house!
“I was still getting to know people when the first lockdown started”, says Goddard, “but it was fine. It was a big exercise for the IT department to set everyone up to work from home but it ran smoothly, and working from home simply meant I had to push more to get to know the team. I was also living in a flat in Birmingham city centre with my partner (also a lawyer) and we were in the process of buying another flat. It made us reconsider if that was what we really wanted from our future, as we were going to be working more from home. Instead, we bought a house with a garden outside of the city.”
His perspective was shared by his employers — Shoosmiths has now made a more permanent move to agile working. This means it is generally up to the individual where they work: at home, elsewhere or in the office. The policy can be summed up as: if people want to work flexibly then that is assumed approved unless there is a business reason why the request cannot work at that time.
“It’s gone down well,” says Goddard. “It gives people flexibility, and recognises employees have needs and lives outside of work, while the office is there for collaborative working or if the individual prefers. Shoosmiths is in a perfect position to make this work well because it’s a forward-thinking firm and is really good on technology. In fact, we understand our clients’ requirements and develop and market our own legal tech to suit clients’ needs.”
Generally speaking, the COVID-19 crisis “has catapulted law firms a few years ahead, they have got to have their tech ready”, he says. While Shoosmiths is pretty tech-savvy, however, Goddard says he’s heard from peers that some partners at other firms take a more old-fashioned approach and want to see staff physically in the office to know they are working. He continues:
“One thing the pandemic has taught us is that you’ve got to trust your team. It’s shown that people can be trusted to get on with their work outside the office. However, there is no ‘one size fits all’. If you’re a high street firm, for example, where clients walk in from the street then you need to have your office manned.”
The pandemic also raises interesting questions about business development — how do you win new clients and maintain relationships with existing clients during socially distanced times? “This isn’t going to go away overnight, and after it does no-one’s going to be rushing back to office nine to five,” says Goddard. “Webinars are the new norm and we have seen a shift to virtual round tables.”
The pandemic has generated legal work for all departments within Shoosmiths, for example, businesses need advice on navigating furlough legislation and want to know how best to protect themselves when they have a force majeure issue in their supply chain. Force majeure — the term in a contract that governs parties’ obligations where an unforeseeable event occurs — has gained prominence in negotiations. Goddard says: “It was always important but never the crux of the matter, now force majeure is subject to real scrutiny.” Adding to the uncertainty, the post-Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020 and businesses still don’t know what shape the deal will take, or if there will be a deal at all. Clients want to know their potential exposure to tariffs and duties.
One subject that will be of interest to future trainees is the pandemic’s potential impact on law firm culture. Will it change? “I think it’s going to have to,” Goddard says. “In other firms, you unfortunately still hear of people feeling scared to speak to partners — that just can’t happen anymore,” Goddard explains. You need to have an open ‘Zoom’ door. Law firms will need to address this, not only from a resource point of view but from a quality and risk perspective, because you still have to deliver for the client in an agile world. People will have to have the confidence to approach and ask for support and help where they have questions.”
Agile working may also affect trainees’ ability to gain the soft skills necessary to being a lawyer. “You often learn by osmosis, simply by hearing and observing how people negotiate or have difficult conversations,” Goddard explains. “It’s a really important part of your professional training so, if you’re not in the office, my advice is to be proactive and ask team members if you can join in on a call or virtual meeting so you can develop these skills. The support will always be there for you but the onus is on you to develop these skills.”
He advises trainees to make friends with their peers so they can help each other learn. For students with any tech experience, he says that, even though lawyers are not there to advise on the specific technical elements, tech is highly relevant to law firms and can have a big impact on legal work. He advises: “Never water down your tech background if you have one.”
Goddard studied at Nottingham Trent University, and did a year in industry at Browne Jacobson. Due to his experience there, he initially wanted to be a litigation lawyer but found during his training contract at Trowers & Hamlins, he really enjoyed commercial work, particularly the aspects around negotiation and striking a deal that worked for all parties. While at Trowers, he worked for six months in the Middle East, where the values are slightly different — “the emphasis there is less on the black letter law (which is typically less sophisticated than the UK) and more on the commercials. I learned the value of pragmatism as a lawyer, and that it’s all about really understanding your client and understanding their appetite for risk — those are major factors when getting a deal over the line.” Consequently, he is very happy at Shoosmiths, where he has ample opportunity to get involved in great deals. He says:
“I really enjoy it. The inner geek in me can come out as the negotiations can get quite technical, and you get to see how you can really impact the future of a business.”
Dan Goddard will be speaking alongside other lawyers from Shoomsmiths at ‘The future of work’, a virtual student event taking place tomorrow (Tuesday 1 December). You can apply for one of the final few, and free, places to attend now.