The Costs Lawyer profession is generally faring “very well” more than a year into the pandemic, with the impact not as bad as feared in the early days, research by the Costs Lawyer Standards Board (CLSB) has shown.
The follow-up to its survey last May about the impact of Covid-19 found that while 31% of Costs Lawyers last year predicted a fall in instructions during 2020, this only actually proved the case for 14%. In fact, 34% reported an increase in their workload.
The biggest differential was for those Costs Lawyers employed by solicitors’ firms, where 40% had more work than a year ago, while just 4% had less.
Some 138 Costs Lawyers, 20% of the profession, responded to the survey. A higher percentage of Costs Lawyers were actually furloughed than feared it last year (7% v 4%), but none lost their jobs as a result of Covid-19. Those in legal aid and personal injury or clinical negligence (PI/CN) costs were most likely to be furloughed.
Though one in seven Costs Lawyers in the first survey feared their firm/business would cease to trade, this did not happen.
The CLSB polled respondents on various other potential impacts, such as instructions falling, disputes taking longer to resolve, delays in clients paying fees and difficulties supervising colleagues due to homeworking.
In the event, 36% of respondents saw none of these happening, with sole practitioners the most likely to say this and those in costs firms the least.
The survey found that 42% of Costs Lawyers specialising in PI/CN costs saw disputes taking longer than usual to conclude, compared to 36% for those in commercial litigation costs and 25% for legal aid Costs Lawyers. Supervision was a particular problem for those in commercial litigation costs.
The level of concern about future impacts of the pandemic has reduced but by no means disappeared; for example, while 39% of PI/CN specialists reported being quite or very concerned about falling instructions in 2020, the figure is now 17%.
The most bullish were those working in solicitors’ firms, of whom 56% were no longer at all concerned about falling client instructions in the next three years, compared to 37% of sole practitioners and 29% of those working in costs law firms.
More than a third (36%) of Costs Lawyers working in costs firms remained quite or very concerned about delays in receiving their fees over the next three years, the same as last year, compared to 20% of sole practitioners (down from 24%) and only 4% of those working in solicitors’ firms (down from 13%).
The CLSB found “pockets of the profession that are worried about mid-term viability” – one in eight legal aid costs practitioners were very concerned about their firm or business ceasing to trade in the next three years, as were one in nine Costs Lawyers working in costs firms. But no sole practitioners and only 2% of those in solicitors’ firms held similar fears.
At a time of ever-greater worry about the viability of legal aid work generally, it was perhaps no surprise that a quarter of legal aid Costs Lawyers were quite or very concerned about being able to carry on practising over the next three years, up from just 4% last year.
Though a majority of Costs Lawyers (58%) embraced new technologies in 2020, it was not as many as had predicted it last year (80%), although they were closer when it came to working predominantly from home where they were not before (80% predicted it, 72% said it became the reality).
Only 10% of Costs Lawyers working in costs firms expected to do little or no remote working when it was safe to return permanently to the office. This dropped to 7% for sole practitioners, 4% for those in solicitors’ firms and zero for in-house Costs Lawyers.
At the other end of the scale, 45% of Costs Lawyers working in solicitors’ firms expected to work remotely most or all of the time after the pandemic. This compared to 63% of sole practitioners, 33% of those in costs firms and 20% of in-house Costs Lawyers.
Among the themes the CLSB said it drew from the results and comments it received were that “remote working brings considerable benefits, but we must address its impact on relationships and wellbeing”, and while concerns about decreasing instructions and job security “have largely been defrayed”, it was now seeing “other kinds of pressure on Costs Lawyers’ working arrangements”.
As with last year, CPD was the main area where Costs Lawyers told the regulator it could help them, and it said it would look at encouraging providers to offer more variety in e-learning activities and recognising part-hour CPD activities.