Sunday, 29 May 2016

10 years - Part 2 - 50 Shades of Cray Cray

In the immediate aftermath of Claims Direct announcing it was in Administrative Receivership, a few things became clear very quickly. Firstly, those that could escape quickly, ran. This was true from the very top with senior managers abandoning ship within hours of the announcement (including my boss). Everyone else seemed stunned into a spooky calm, waiting for instruction. I have to admit that Deloitte moved very quickly to try and calm the unease, though they could do little in reality for most of the staff who knew the axe would be falling sooner rather than later.

I remember finding out that not only was the recent conference invoice in a pile of “creditors” there were some pretty huge unpaid invoices from the previous few years which reflected the devil-may-care attitude of the company and the champagne lifestyle that they had enjoyed even when doubts must have been creeping in about how long the gravy train would be in motion. A particularly notable example was for a conference they held in Las Vegas. I mean, really? A conference in Las Vegas?! It was a thing of legend within the office, most of the managers had gone and a decent amount of everyday employees too. No expense was spared. This gives you a little indication of the sheer arrogance and attitude towards image that this company had in its prime.

But now the vultures were circling. The media had a field day and, in light of the ominous stories that had been run in previous weeks, felt vindicated and a little smug. The Sun had been running a particularly high profile campaign branding the firm “Shames Direct” and printing many case studies featuring ‘victims’ of the system who had won their claims but not won any money.

Let’s rewind to clarify what the nature of the disease within the midst of the Claims Direct model was. I actually wrote a paper on this exact issue as part of my MBA (it scored me an A grade for my Operations Management module as it happens). The rot had been caused by a backlash from the insurance industry which had taken a few years to form itself into a united and coherent group against the likes of the ‘ambulance chasing’ PI firms. Claims Direct was simply the biggest, most long standing and well known target and so became the natural focus of their ire.

Basically, Claims Direct forced their clients to take out an insurance premium to cover them in case their claim was unsuccessful (hence the ‘no win no fee’ tagline). The cost of this premium was around the £1,250 mark. The average demographic for people trying to make a claim meant that paying out for an insurance premium up front was beyond them, therefore the cost of this premium was covered by a loan that was built into the claim and if the case was successful it would be covered by the settlement. This model relied on Claims Direct only taking on cases it was certain would win.

The problem was that often a case took 2-3 years to settle and for that entire time the loan for the insurance premium would be accruing interest. By the time settlement came there was often £2,500-3k owing on the loan which would be deducted from any amount due to the client. With many cases being for minor whiplash injuries it was not unusual for settlement to barely cover the amount owing and in some cases the claimant would actually end up in debt with no settlement to show. These were the cases that The Sun sensationalised and which shone a very bright light on to the practices of the company and which, in turn, fed the negative publicity machine.

The insurance industry ended up in a test case against Claims Direct, stating that the cost of the insurance premium should not be recoverable in a personal injury claim. After an elongated battle which went right up to the High Court, the final decision was that only half of the cost of the premium (and none of the interest for any associated loan) was recoverable. This amount was capped at £613.50.

So, Claims Direct was vilified in the press, detested by our clients and staffed by 25 remaining people who now had the task of running the remaining claims in the system (around 100k) to conclusion. It was this volume of claims which explains the 3 years it took to wind the company down.

Deloitte’s main problem was how to keep the remaining staff engaged when they were being yelled at quite continuously by pissed off clients who, now the cat was out of the bag about the receivership, felt validated in aiming their anger at anyone associated with the company. On top of this, the news that we would all, at some point, be losing our jobs was a tad unsettling (though less so for me who had been on a short term contract to begin with).

In hindsight, I understand why some of the utterly crazy behaviour that ensued happened – it was a coping mechanism for the situation we were in. As the original group of remaining staff dwindled down to 12 of us, the office stopped resembling a place of work with professional values and started resembling a dysfunctional family trying to simply co-exist without imploding.

Of the final 12, only 3 of us were female. The dynamic in the remaining group since the day the original axe fell had been predominantly male (around 8/20 females), but for the final few years, as a much smaller team, the imbalance was far more noticeable and at times problematic.

I distinctly remember falling out big style with one of the guys (who incidentally became a very good friend) due to being hit in the head by a football while I was on the phone with a client. Playing sport in the office was entirely normal and in no way discouraged by our (wonderful) Deloitte rep on his weekly visits. Unfortunately, kicking a football round – not just passing but HOOFING the ball violently against walls and people – made for a bit of a toxic atmosphere for those not enjoying this physical release. I can understand how funny this was for the lads at the time but it was severely frustrating for me. I had to learn to care less about the job and just think about the pay cheques.

And, talking of pay cheques, they were the main way that they kept us on board for as long as they did - quarterly bonus cheques to be exact. It literally came as a cheque separate to salary and was a great little sweetener.

The culture of the team became very laddish. This was not always a bad thing, it certainly made for a gang mentality which, when things were going well, was pretty fun. The problem was that people were not always going to co-exist convivially in this kind of environment and even though we officially had a senior manager in charge (female) and an appointed Deloitte overseer, it generally felt like a free for all.

At times, things were actually borderline crazy and many a “can you believe it?” discussion was had between us three girls, who were generally not involved in but witness to the most shocking of events. A debrief following nights out as a team was not uncommon and because Deloitte were determined to keep us as engaged as possible, the (part funded) nights out were pretty regular. On occasion I think we all wished there was some kind of HR mechanism to address matters but all we had was a contact at Deloitte offering advice by proxy and disciplinary matters were generally left for us to sort out in house.

A number of incidents require a mammoth leap of imagination to believe.

There were physical altercations between members of staff. On one memorable occasion our IT guy ran over (literally) another member of staff. The other staff member was on the bonnet of his car and for the life of me I cannot remember what they even fell out about now, but let’s just say that large quantities of alcohol were involved.

Human excrement was a feature of a number of “practical jokes” and notably somebody did actually find a specimen on their desk at one point. I am not even joking.

Early in the receivership, there was a very large pile of files in one corner of the office space. By fairly large I mean you could have hidden a couple of small hatchbacks in it without knowing. It was nearly to the ceiling and probably a MAJOR fire hazard. I think, from memory, these were archived paper files which needed securely disposing of because they contained personal information including addresses and medical records of clients. The pile just grew and grew over a number of weeks while we waited for secure shredding bins to arrive, and on a number of occasions various employees would run the length of the office and dive into it, causing papers to slide everywhere and the mess to increase. It was marginally amusing to watch though. For the first 5 times at least.  

We watched the whole of the memorable Ashes 2005 series in the office, with a TV running all day to allow us to keep up with the action which was definitely a perk. Likewise we had the TV running when the 7/7 bombings happened, which was far more upsetting and weird.

It was not uncommon for pub lunches to drag on into the afternoon and one of our team used to regularly sleep, in his chair, at his desk, during his lunch break. I admired his ability to kick back and doze off. I also saw him startled awake on a number of occasions by his rambunctious colleagues which was often very amusing.

Office furniture started to be divided up and shared out towards the end as the Receivers had no use for such low value assets and we knew the offices would be stripped and everything thrown away after we closed the doors for the final time. It was a strange feeling of realisation as the amount of empty space in the office around us grew. This did, of course, make for easier games of cricket.’

To be continued…

Monday, 2 May 2016

10 years

It has taken me 10 whole years to be capable of writing this blog post. Ten years of fairly regular remembrance of a time and place that now seems even more unbelievable than it did while it was occurring. For 3 and a half years, between May 2002 and December 2005 I worked for Claims Direct. Actually, to be more accurate, for 90% of that time they were correctly called Claims Direct in Administrative Receivership and were under the governance of Deloitte & Touche Receivers.

From the get go, I realised this was not a normal workplace. My previous role was with a London law firm, based in the heart of the City square mile, very formal, full of old school process, tradition and observed rules. The contrast between this and the workplace I was now to experience could not be more wildly different. You have seen The Wolf of Wall Street right? This was the legal sector version of that. I kid you not.

I should state, my employment was never meant to be anything more than a maternity cover for 9 months to a year. I never got a hand over with my predecessor though because by the time I had arrived from London she had left, I cannot remember now whether this was due to early arrival of baby or not, I just remember feeling utterly thrown in at the deep end. I had gone from PA to two solicitors in a busy but quite mundane law firm to being PA to 1 Director of a legal department. A fucking crazy legal department.

I spent the first few weeks literally sat on my own in an office space that was physically on the other side of the building from the rest of the legal department. My desk was outside the large, flamboyant office of the ‘Head of Legal’ who was my new boss. But he was not around. He was on some kind of large scale tour of the UK having meetings with the law firms who were Claims Direct’s key delivery partners.

So during my ‘induction’ I read through some scant handover notes my predecessor had left and I had a series of batshit conversations with a woman who nobody seemed to know had been employed. She was apparently a shithot lawyer but she was also mad as a box of frogs, wore 80s make up (like serious blue eyeshadow, tons of it) and because nobody had any work for her to do she spent her days with her feet up on the desk reading Danielle Steel books and occasionally stopping to talk to me. Her office was the opposite one to my bosses and my desk sat in between the two rooms. She had only been in post a few weeks and I think she was just relieved to have somebody to talk to. I NEVER established, in the craziness that followed, what it was she was employed specifically to do.

Also during my first few weeks, one particularly arrogant legal hotshot decided I should be her personal secretary and dumped a pile of files on my desk along with a dictation tape. She wanted me to do her audio typing seeing as I must not have much to do. I complied, it was better than counting paper clips for another few hours, but this was a mistake as she then, for the rest of her tenure, treated me like her own personal typist. Despite the fact there was an ACTUAL POOL OF TYPISTS in her department who were there to provide this specific service.

Anyway, one random afternoon a few weeks in, I got a phone call from my new boss. He was, as he had been on all of our conversations to date, in his car at the time. The crux of the phone call was that he would like me to organise a conference for 200 delegates for the beginning of July. I had about 5 weeks in which to organise it. From a standing start and with no idea who to invite or what it was for or actually anything to go on at all. It is fair to say I was a little panicked by this request. In later months it would seem actually hilarious and a tad sinister that I was asked to do this because the Directors of Claims Direct clearly knew some key pieces of information whilst I was booking this event which rendered it utterly pointless.

I remember having a conversation about this event with one of the Legal Case Managers. She was actually one of my saving graces during my time here – a genuinely down to earth, awesome, funny, strong woman. She gave me the guidance I could not get from my actual boss, some pointers for who to invite, what needed to happen and expectations for such an event and I think without her I would have probably quit on the spot.

The conference itself happened on 1st and 2nd July. I remember this because I remember that I had to head to the conference venue on the Sunday afternoon which was the 30th June. It was the first time I had had any involvement in an event on this scale. It was kind of exciting. Most of the legal managers had also arrived on the Sunday. I remember being excited at having my own hotel room and being catered for as a corporate guest for the first time. In years to come I would look back on this experience and realise how different it was from any other conference I would attend afterwards. Like most of my experiences with Claims Direct it was formative and unusual.

For two days the champagne literally flowed as the senior managers and directors wined and dined this large group of Solicitors. Mostly these were named partners of law firms from all over the country. They played tennis and got massages and had ‘sessions’ around personal injury claims and context so that the whole thing did not look like one big jolly. Which is very much what it was.

I remember taking a call from the venue, an expensive retreat style hotel in the midlands, on the Friday of the same week, asking where to direct the final bill and bantering with them about the extent of the bar bill, which I knew must have been impressive. Little did I or the hotel know that the following week, on Wednesday 10th July, Claims Direct would go into Administrative Receivership.  

I never saw my boss again. He had briefly appeared in the office in the few days after the conference but was due to be back on the road during the week when this news broke. Indeed, on the morning of the 10th July I took 3 calls from media reps looking for comment on the revelation before any official news was announced. I was, of course, as always, sat a million miles away from the rest of the department as the news broke and crazy lady and I were visited by an increasing number of panicked looking managers who were desperately seeking my (absent) boss and some clarity.

Mid-morning my phone rang and it was him. He was, as always, in his car but he sounded far more sombre than usual. He did not mince his words, simply stating that he would not be coming back to the office. Ever again. He asked me to help his deputy pack up his personal affects when she came round and wished me all the best. I had been his PA for approximately 8 weeks at this point and had seen him in the flesh a handful of times. I was slightly shell shocked when I got off this call but at least one thing was clear. Claims Direct was in the middle of a shitstorm.

I did not expect to keep my job. There were a number of reasons why – I was on a temp contract for maternity cover, the Director I was PA to had walked, I had no reason to believe I would make it past the weekend. Somehow I stayed in post for another 3 years. I watched 250 staff dwindle to around 20 who stayed the distance. I watched people lose their minds in the boredom, low morale and malaise that comes with running a company into the ground, milking a cash cow for the last drops of cream.

Over the next few blog posts I will tell the story of what happened during the craziness of those 3 years as the world of Personal Injury claims was forever changed by the outcome of one major legal case and as those of us on the ship as it went down tried to stay sane.