Taking Stock - AJS

It’s as good a time as any….

Can you believe that it is November already?

Christmas decorations are going up in stores, Christmas treats are available at department store tills and orders for read-made turkeys (complete with gravy and stuffing) are being ordered. Already.

November marks the start of the end of the year. And with it, there is always a flood of emotions. Firstly, there is the excitement that comes with the Festive season – family time, delicious food and festive celebrations. And this year (in particular) will hopefully mark the bringing together of families from all over the world with international borders once again opening up for travel (provided you have been double vaxed – a debate all on its own). 

We all look forward to starting a new year with new possibilities and hopes. But that, in and of itself, brings with it a big helping of uncertainty (especially with the last – almost – two years in mind). And that feeling of nervousness, anxiety and uncertainty always seems to come hand-in-hand with starting afresh. For most of us. 

Looking back over our year, it is often hard to have perspective. It is difficult to realise what you have managed to accomplish – despite the odds – and how much you have grown. Because our achievements, no matter how small, are far too often clouded by our disappointments, failures or under achievements, no matter how small. We are all human and this happens to all of us. 

So, when we started thinking about and planning the Taking Stock series, we wanted to really start it off with a Bang. But we just couldn’t figure out what that Bang was. Until we came across this – 

“With a good perspective on history, we can have a better understanding of the past and present, and thus a clear vision of the future.” — Carlos Slim Helu

But what does that quote mean?

To us it means this – it is often far too easy to lose our perspective. Whenever something goes wrong (big or small) or whenever the world is in a bit of chaos (like the last two years or so), most of us panic. We lose sight of where we have come from and where we are headed to. And our vision for the future is lost amongst the noise and confusion in our thoughts. 

  • We cannot see the Forrest for the trees. 

But with perspective, by looking back on the last year and by looking back in History – like the Great Depression (known as the “worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world”) or the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic (“the most severe pandemic in recent history, causing the deaths of at least 50 million worldwide”) – we can see that we do overcome. We get through it. 

  • And if we plan correctly, we can thrive after it.  Despite it all.

At AJS, we believe that taking stock of the past year does not need to wait for the beginning of 2022. We can start now. In fact, we should start now. Because we need to start appreciating where we have come from and what we have been through. And most importantly, we need to know (with a certain degree of certainty and definitely with belief in ourselves) where we are headed. 

Because how can you plan for a bright future when you are plagued by the difficulties of the past and the uncertainty of your present? 

Now is as good a time as any to take stock. Don’t you think?

On that note, we are taking a slightly more unorthodox approach. We are going to kick off this series by taking a look at some of the big topics of this year. Just to put ourselves in the overall greater picture. And by so doing, start to bring some perspective to 2021. Before it is over.

What has been newsworthy in 2021?

To say that the past year has been an extraordinary one is a gross understatement. 

We have all had a lot to deal with – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. 

So, let’s take a look at some of them and gain perspective – 

The BAD – 

COVID and vaccinations

Not only have we still been fighting the COVID 19 global pandemic but we have also been grappling with getting the vaccine. Or not getting the vaccine. And with that the debate between the vaxxers vs the anti-vaxxers has ensued.

According to the article An Overview of the Vaccine Debate, anti-vaxxers cite the vaccine as being toxic, a tool of ‘Big Pharma”, not being tested properly, children’s immune systems being too immature to handle the vaccine, leading the immune system to become overwhelmed, herd (or natural) immunity being better. The list goes on. 

And this “anti-vaxx movement” has cast doubt on the importance of childhood vaccinations. Generally.  Leading to an almost regression in modern medicine among large sectors of the general population, which has resulted in further declines in other vaccination rates. In fact, according to Very Well Health – 

“The impact of anti-vaccination claims has been profound. For example, it has led to a resurgence of measles in the United States and Europe, despite the fact that the disease was declared eliminated in the U.S. back in 2000”.

And that is a rather unfortunate result of the COVID vaccine. Because we all thought being vaccinated would be good news for society in general. Alas, we were clearly mistaken. 

The economic knock-on effect 

According to the article October 2021 update to TIGER: The global economic recovery is in danger of stalling – 

The world economy’s “recovery” from the “short-lived but deep COVID-19 recession appears to be in danger of stalling” –  

“The Brookings-Financial Times Tracking Indexes for the Global Economic Recovery (TIGER) shows growth momentum weakening across the world, particularly in the two major engines of global growth—the U.S. and China.

Amid persistent concerns about the impact of Delta and newer variants of the coronavirus, supply-side constraints are tightening and rising inflation is becoming a significant restraint on policy support that could keep growth on track. The spike in energy prices is emblematic of the problems created by supply disruptions that could eventually hurt aggregate demand, particularly if central banks are forced to take more aggressive actions to contain inflation. In many countries, particularly the emerging markets and low-income economies, the 2020 recession continues to have scarring effects on GDP and employment”.

And it seems that no country is immune – even the US seems to be going through its own Recession, something it hasn’t experienced since 2009.  

Times are indeed tough. And we are not even sure when they will start improving. 

The UGLY – 

Political instability 

Not only has there been worldwide elections but there has been severe political unrest linked to the pandemic.  According to Foreign Policy, it seems that we all need to be ready for a spike in global unrest (great!) – 

“From Cuba to South Africa to Colombia to Haiti, often violent protests are sweeping every corner of the globe as angry citizens are taking to the streets.

The coronavirus pandemic was a once-in-a-century crisis that not only shocked countries’ existing health systems but also demanded a response that impacted—and was itself shaped by—economic, political, and security considerations. The efforts to contain it may have curbed fatalities in the short term but have inadvertently deepened vulnerabilities that laid the groundwork for longer-term violence, conflict, and political upheaval and should serve as a danger sign to world leaders as countries reopen—including in the United States.

It has also exposed weaknesses in food security and dramatically increased the number of people affected by chronic hunger. The United Nations estimates around one-tenth of the global population—between 720 million people and 811 million—were undernourished last year. The impacts of climate change and environmental degradation have only compounded the despair”. 

South Africa in particular 

The riots and looting have had an astronomical effect on South Africa. In Durban alone, the city has estimated over $1 billion in damages and lost goods, which, along with 129,000 jobs at risk, could amount to a $1.4 billion hit to the port city’s gross domestic product. And while the material things can be recovered and businesses rebuilt (eventually) there has been a break down in both business operations and employee relationships.

And to worsen the situation, the cost has been staggering –  Africa News has estimated that the damage caused as a result of the looting is worth about $1.7 billion (25 billion rand), with SASRIA adding that “South Africa’s riots were among the most expensive in the world in the last 10 years, surpassing damages caused in riots in various U.S. states over the killing of George Floyd in 2020, which cost an estimated $1.5 billion in damages”.

Something South Africa can ill afford. 

Let’s not forget Afghanistan 

No one can forget the images of Afghans clinging off of planes as they tried to take off. Those images were haunting. And also very telling. 

The “War on Terror” was waged by the U.S. from 1999 – 2021 (it’s longest war). And with the U.S. military pulling out of the country on 20 August 2021 (a day ahead of schedule) it ended its 20-year occupation, which left Afghanistan in tatters. 

Not entirely unexpected the Taliban quickly surged back into power facing very little resistance. On the 15h of August 2021, the takeover of Afghanistan followed the Taliban’s rapid advance through the country, during which it captured all but two of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals and seized border crossings. Afghan security forces in some areas reportedly negotiated surrenders and avoided fighting the Taliban. As a result, the Afghan Government collapsed when the Taliban fighters overran Kabul (the capital), taking over the presidential palace only hours after President Ghani left the country. 

And this begs the question whether the war on terror was in fact won, or just a waste of time, resources and lives? 

Because despite the Taliban regaining control, President Biden defended the withdrawal of U.S. troops stating that “his administration made the right decision in ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, arguing that the U.S. counterterrorism mission is complete. But he acknowledges that the troop withdrawal has been “messy” and blames Afghan security forces for failing to counter the Taliban”. 

And that seems like a little bit of an understatement. 

Be that as it may (and besides South Africa, Afghanistan and the U.S) politics around the world has been rather messy. And the world politics headlines on CNBC certainly reflect this. On a daily basis. 

But there is also the GOOD!

The new normal

Working from home has offered a massive change to what has become important and what employees now value more than anything else in their working lives. This has made employers take notice. Not always because they wanted to (some of the issues had been around for a while) but because they had no choice. 

But, these changes regardless of how they arose, are seemingly here to stay and if there is anything to be positive about arising from the Pandemic it is these – 

Childcare and family benefits

The many changes and challenges of the pandemic were reallllyyy felt by working parents. The rise of remote work, closure of schools and remote learning, coupled with the difficulty of physically isolating within family units, put a lot of additional pressure on working families.  

But the difficulties faced by working families (faced long before COVID hit) have forced the conversation with employers on better family and childcare benefits.  

According to the article Working parents want a cohesive family benefits platform, says Cleo CEO, – 

‘Employees are demanding specific behavioral, mental health and special needs support for both children and parents. One in five of our parents cite a concern around an acute special need, neuro-diversity issue or mental health issue. So we’re going to see more focus on what I call whole family health and see employers open up their idea of what dependent care looks like’.

A survey by Sage, stated that 27% of businesses invested in “non-traditional” benefits including money towards childcare and flexible work arrangements. Furthermore, 99% of businesses intend to continue the same level of childcare support and child-friendly work practices.

And that is a major help to working parents feeling the pinch (both financially and emotionally).

Home offices and hybrid environments

According to the article Statistics on Remote Workers That Will Surprise You (2021) – 

10,000 employees surveyed by the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago said they thought they were just as productive working from home compared to working in the office.

In fact, 30% of those respondents told researchers they were more productive and engaged working from home.

This same survey team calculated that commuting time was reduced by 62.4 million hours per day with aggregate time savings of over 9 billion hours starting from the middle of March 2020 to the middle of September 2020”.

And with those statistics in mind, it is no wonder why businesses are investing in new ways to keep up with the changing landscape of remote working.  This has involved the rapid adoption of technology and software that allows remote working to happen without a hitch, ensuring that employees have access to extensive resources making their work-from-home lives that much easier. 

All fantastic moves in the right direction!

For lawyers, it has involved the incorporation of legal software (such as that offered by AJS) to make their practices more flexible by using technology to enable easy access to documents, case management, document automation, legal accounting and practice management, which has had the corresponding impact that the practice of law has been altered in a way that has been surprising. The practice of Law has become easier. It has created efficiency, productivity and profitability (something we discussed in our article on Automation). 

And whilst businesses have been spending money on moving with the ever changing (and developing) landscape that is remote working, they are actually saving money in the process. As set out in Does Working From Home Save Companies Money? These savings include rent and utilities, office cleaning services, food provided in canteens and taxes relating to payroll, sales and property. 

And we do not foresee this situation changing any time soon. In fact, instead of going back to work full time (despite the vaccines), most companies are pursuing hybrid work environments offering employees the option of working part time at home and part time in the office. A sort of best of both worlds scenario

And that is amazing. 

Mental health support

COVID, coupled with the overall anxiety about the pandemic as well as the economic repercussions associated with businesses closing or downscaling, has had a significant impact on the mental health of employees in various sectors. It shone a spotlight on how people are suffering, struggling and looking for help. And this made it crystal clear to companies that there is a dire need to provide comprehensive mental health benefits to their employees. For the sake of not only the employees but their bottom line as well. 

And companies have been taking mental health seriously

In an article by Braving Boundaries titled Law Firms: 8 Practical Ways to Improve Staff Mental Health, there are some important practical ways of improving mental health in the workplace which are extremely beneficial for companies that don’t know where to start. Its action that is required not just lip service.

Because data has shown a significant increase in self-reported instances of mental health distress as a result of the pandemic. In January 2021, 41% of adults reported feeling symptoms of depression or anxiety, a number up considerably from January 2019 data, which indicated only 11% of adults experiencing anxiety or depression.

We cannot express this enough – it is crucial that mental health is taken seriously, as Michael Phelps says – 

“It’s OK to not be OK” and that mental illness “has a stigma around it and that’s something we still deal with every day. I think people actually finally understand it is real. People are talking about it and I think this is the only way that it can change”. 

So, to ensure a company remains profitable, they need to make their employees a priority. And this includes their mental health. 

Equality

One of the big topics this year has been the fight for equality – both for gender and for race.

And while the fight – on both fronts – is still raging on, there has been some hopeful developments. 

Derek Chauvin, the policeman responsible for the death of George Floyd on the 25th May 2020 has been found guilty of murder, by a jury of his peers (as of 21 April 2021). This has been significant in both the fight for racial equality as well as the fight against police brutality in the U.S.

You see, Eric Garner who suffered a similar fate to Floyd (6 years earlier) did not receive the same justice. In his case, the state grand jury declined to press criminal charges. So, when Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr was asked how she felt after hearing the Chauvin verdict, she expressed elation (quite understandably) stating that “finally, we did get some justice”.

Justice for those who have suffered injustice is just a start. But at least it is a step (and a start) in the right direction. 

The fight for gender equality, especially in the face of gender based violence and gender discrimination (especially in South Africa), is a complex topic and one that women have been fighting for, for decades.  But there is some hope – on 3 June 2021, the South African National Assembly passed the Gender-Based Violence Bills – Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Bill, Domestic Violence Amendment Bill and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act Amendment Bill. And this is extremely promising in a country where the extent of gender based violence is one of the worst in the world

While this is a drop in the ocean, it is at the very least, the very first drop. A drop which we all hope will multiply across the globe until there is a powerful tide that will wash away the crimes committed against women. A tide that will unify women worldwide and in that, give them strength, courage and most importantly, protection. 

We recognise that the above does not highlight monumental or ground breaking changes.  At least, not yet. But for topics as complex, as important and as sensitive as racial and gender discrimination as well as gender based violence, any step in the right direction is one worth noting. And that is why these “developments” have been included amongst the GOOD. Because hope has once again been ignited in all of us. Hope that change will come and hope that help will be offered (and given) to those in need of it.

To finish off Part I

We admit that hard times are hard. It’s as simple as that. 

And there is no denying that 2021 can be counted as among some of the hardest of times. But hard times force us to find new innovative solutions and cope in ways which foster continuous forward thinking and resilience. And 2021 has certainly done that, especially for the legal profession which has exploded with legal technological innovation. 

Sure, 2021 has been a year full of disruptions in operations, upheavals, disappointments and in some instances even shock, but because of that we have all been forced to adapt rapidly to dramatic changes. We have all been forced to adapt to challenges and set-backs and by so doing, have experienced success. Success which can only be attributed to innovation, adaptation and resiliency resulting from hard/tough times.  

And let’s be honest, it is often our perspective which has helped us through it all

We hope that with this Taking Stock Series, we will all take time to reflect, to regroup and take stock so that come the beginning of 2022, we can all hit the ground running. From day one. Because we will have already undertaken the hard task of processing and reflecting on our year, securing a great and successful start to the New Year.

Going forward, we hope to shed light on how the legal profession has been improved and has benefitted during these hard times resulting in an almost new legal world with exciting opportunities. We may even add in what we at AJS, have achieved along the way. 

With that, we would like to leave you with the following quotes – 

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden” ― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden.

“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses” – Alphonse Karr, A Tour Round My Garden

So let’s see the garden for what it is and take the time to smell the roses, thorns or not. 

Written by Alicia Koch on behalf of AJS

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