This article first appeared in Lawyers Weekly on 18 December 2020.

As 2019 turned into 2020, the team at CIE Legal planned the year ahead and coalesced around a “back to basics” mantra. I shared it with you at the start of March and promised to provide an update later in the year, writes Peter George.

When, in that article, I highlighted Robert Musil’s summary, “It’s easy to think in miles when you’ve no idea what riches can be hidden in a single inch”, I couldn’t have known just how different the landscape over which we were to travel would be. And as for the “Tiny Noticeable Things”, I had no idea just how small our worlds would become.

Yet despite the trials of 2020 (and for us Victorians, there have been many), this year created a new level of clarity and camaraderie that has seen small firms like us flourish.

Experiencing 2020

Let’s turn around and look back for a moment. In 2020, our horizons both expanded and contracted.

While we learnt to communicate seamlessly from our homes, across cities, countries and continents, we found our everyday lives more circumscribed, smaller and more ordinary than ever before. Emboldened by our own adaptability and the resulting opportunities, we felt, at the same time, less secure and more vulnerable, with the result that most of us have relied on the certainties of family, home and local community more than ever before.

As a legal profession, we have been on a journey together. The curtain lifted in March and April, exposing differences between those who could and couldn’t adapt. In May and June, we challenged established thought patterns (“is it possible for a firm to operate virtually?”).

We realised we could work effectively from home, but then faced the challenge of a protracted lockdown. Then we emerged on the other side, to start the work of considering something richer and more profound: what our experiences tell us about being a lawyer in 2020 and beyond. Two themes emerged: clarity and camaraderie.


When CIE Legal launched back to basics at the start of 2020, it felt like a radical thing to do within our vibrant, verbose legal sector, home to ever bigger branding, more grandiose “innovation” and the continual promise of a magic bullet that would change everything.

In this context, it felt almost unorthodox to focus on small steps, on consistent incremental change, on good relationships, on delivered promises and on one step in front of the other. Were we being too pragmatic? Too prosaic? Not “innovative” enough?

I don’t think we were. Instead, in 2020, we learnt that, stripped of the physical trappings of power and status, law firms are a bunch of people behind a bunch of computers. No longer defined by the brand we stand behind, the office we inhabit, the suit we wear or the coffee we serve, virtual work in 2020 provided the opportunity for us all to simply be who we are. Turns out that those seizing this opportunity have reaped the rewards.

A new level of clarity has emerged, focused on what really matters: working with clients to achieve their aims and enjoying the journey together. Continuing to climb, one step at a time. Delivering what is promised. Making an impact by changing lots of tiny noticeable things.

Let me give you an example. We are working with our clients and CXINLAW to implement changes that clients tell us will elevate their experience of CIE Legal beyond anything they receive from other firms. Not one of these alterations is “big bang”.

They are not, in themselves, “innovative” and they don’t involve significant financial outlay or investment in technology. Instead, they require teamwork, communication, creativity, tenacity and genuine, long-term behavioural change. We’re up for the challenge and our clients are up for helping us achieve it.


Yes, there’s clarity in 2020, but there is also camaraderie. Back to basics has proved to be a valuable psychological, as well as commercial, touchstone for CIE Legal. We’ve always been straightforward operators, but 2020 has taken it to a new level.

Sharing our lives and our homes with colleagues through computer screens, we’ve supported each other like never before. We’ve become more mindful of others’ mental health, going gently when we feel colleagues need a little understanding. We’ve experienced terrible lows and wonderful highs, and our bond has grown stronger as a result.

Just as rewarding has been the camaraderie we have developed with clients.

In 2020, many of our longstanding clients have become partners and friends. Even for a firm that has always kept it real, we’ve experienced a change. We are having more honest, more direct and more entertaining conversations with clients than ever before. We feel more able to give help and ask for help, resulting in genuine partnerships that are rewarding for all of us.

And, as clients continue to tell us how much they appreciate it, we have become more proficient at straight-talking and more confident at simply being who we are.

Back to basics

So, as 2020 draws to a close, what have we learnt? It’s now apparent that firms embracing this new-found clarity and camaraderie will be the ones best equipped to face our uncertain future.

Those that are anchored by the basics of our shared humanity. Those that focus on the tiny noticeable things that accumulate to make a big difference. Those that press on, one step at a time… until they stop, turn around to look at the view, and realise just how far they’ve come.

Peter George is a managing partner at CIE Legal.

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