This week I attended a conference at University College London of the charity of which I am a trustee, the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF). The speakers were mostly either student lawyers who had worked on cases for the communities who come to us for help, or the tutors, barristers and solicitors who supervise them.
Speaker after speaker spoke of how significant this live work had been to them and their departments and how important it had been in helping ELF clients secure access to justice. I was quite stunned by how successful the ELF programme has become with our partner universities – and now feel motivated to push hard for the long-planned next stage: technology-driven sharing of expertise and case experience.
Things felt very different a few years ago when, in common with many charities, our big ticket grant funding dried up so completely that we seriously considered closing. Instead, we switched away from a central office model in which teams of student lawyer interns were managed in-house, to one which spreads the workload amongst several university law schools*, all assisted by call centre services kindly donated by the law firm, Irwin Mitchell.
Immediately, we made enormous savings in office and staff costs. Better still, our tiny remaining executive team was able to focus purely on helping our clients, including liaising with the universities and our professional members (lawyers who give time free of charge). Consequently, they felt – and were – much more productive, whilst our more national geographical spread encouraged requests for help from much further afield. Pretty soon (well, within a couple of years) we were handling more cases than ever, on 20% of our previous budget. And because the little money we were getting came from private donors, we could spend it all on core activity (major grant bodies generally prefer to fund separate, discrete projects). Given this now solid base, we are in a much stronger position to grow once more, whilst maintaining our hard-won productivity.
Looking more broadly, it is becoming clear that Brexit-related concerns are making organisations much more open to the need for change. This could be something simple, such as the switch at my creative agency, Blue Moon, to a new job, time & invoicing management system which has saved us amazing amounts of admin**. Or it could be a decision to review suppliers, as one potential client mentioned to me last week. Or it could be a quite revolutionary, ELF-style shift in ways of working.
Whatever it is, the businesses which are actively offering help to those seeking it, are more likely to prosper from times of great change, than to suffer from them. Time to get out there!
*Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham Trent, University of Law London