The secret to post-pandemic success?
- The year that nobody expected.
It started with a mass exodus from the office to our homes. We baked banana bread. We cheered for our frontline workers. We made TikToks. We waved at elderly family members through windows. We eventually ventured out again, and now, we’ve retreated inside once more.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a year, personally and professionally. While many do not miss the daily commute, others are finding working from home quite stressful. The change of lifestyle and fear of the unknown are taking their toll on mental health.
While we’re all feeling the repercussions of the pandemic, when it comes to law – no one has been hit harder than our trainees, juniors and the young talent who are the future of our industry. Law firms and in-house teams are having to make difficult decisions between talent retention and the organisation’s bottom line, which means that the path that was once so clearly laid out in front of them, is now a lot less stable.
“There is a lot of anxiety among junior lawyers about exposing any weaknesses . . . online they have to be more visible about asking for help.”
As is inevitable with economic downturns, when disaster strikes, cuts are made – to costs and people. And unfortunately in law, like many industries, it’s junior talent that’s often the first to go. Especially in firms where partners and profits are the main priority.
However, it’s not just job losses, the pandemic has had a major impact on many other factors:
Less Work Opportunity
Those who’ve managed to keep their position are struggling too. Back in the days of offices, if a partner needed help with a project, they’d walk down the hall and hand the work to a junior associate. Now it’s not so simple. Video-calls and file-sharing can be a headache, so there’s a growing trend of partners just doing things themselves. Which means juniors are missing out on work, and the learning involved with it.
Many paralegals are also in the same boat, with those working full-time in organisations feeling the sharpest end of pandemic cuts. However, while work is drying up for perm staff, on the other side of the fence, freelance paralegals seem to be thriving. In a bid to keep overheads low and work flowing, more and more firms are turning to contractors for help.
Although we will soon gradually come out of lockdown, plenty of challenges still lie ahead. Unfortunately, most of these challenges are financial. And tragically, it’s junior staff that’ll feel the brunt of them.
Finally, there’s the social side to things. Think of all the contacts we’ve all made at industry events. With networking off the table, trainees aren’t building new relationships or getting coffee break career guidance that’s key to growth and progression.
Cutbacks On Training and Pupillage
Another casualty of coronavirus is workplace development and mentorship. Communication has shifted from informative to functional. From ‘let me show you how to…’ to ‘are you ok?’. While it’s fantastic to see so many line managers stepping up and adapting to find ways “to recognise stress when not seeing people face to face”, learning is taking a back seat.
Many training programmes that were lined up for the year have been postponed or cancelled. While some efforts have been made to shift things online, the newness of virtual learning means that progress is slow and careers have stalled for many of our young talent.
Also, as all company communication is now screen-to-screen and more scheduled, there’s less opportunities for adhoc learning or watercooler advice that would happen naturally in an office environment when people are around each other.
The Rise of the Virtual Micromanager
Remote working is atypical for many firms. And because of this, some supervisors are struggling with how to effectively monitor output without physical visibility. So to compensate, they’re requesting daily check-ins and frequent team meetings to ensure that A) they’re across everything and B) junior staff aren’t kicking back watching Netflix all day. Hello virtual micromanagement. However, this is eating into the work day and ultimately having a negative effect on productivity and the emotional health of employees.
In reality, staff are having to log-on earlier and earlier to meet the demands of this new way of working. Meaning that their work/life balance is so extremely off-kilter that catching an episode of The Crown on the sly between contract reviews is almost laughable. Which leads us on to our next point….
Mental Health Issues are Spiralling
Mental health issues are on the rise, and the sudden shift to working remotely in often less than ideal cramped living arrangements is not helping our young talent. So much so, LawCare, a UK legal mental health charity, have reported that calls to their helpline have skyrocketed since March.
While, as mentioned, some are suffering from job losses and a lack of work, many junior lawyers have too much on their plate and not enough support. They feel overwhelmed and mental health issues that existed pre-Covid are now exacerbated. LawCare CEO Elizabeth Rimmer says: “There is a lot of anxiety among junior lawyers about exposing any weaknesses . . . online they have to be more visible about asking for help.”
Setbacks in Diversity
Prejudice and representation are still issues for female and BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) professionals in the legal and justice sector, and as the pandemic rages on, young talent from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds are being hit particularly hard.
According to the Ministry of Justice’s Diversity of Judiciary, women remain under-represented in judicial roles in 2020, especially in the courts where 32% of all judges, and 26% of those in more senior roles (High Court and above) were women – compared with 47% of all judges in tribunals.
The percentage of judges who identify as BAME remains lower for court appointments compared to tribunals, particularly at senior levels (4% for High Court and above, compared with 8% of all court and 12% of all tribunal judges). With a higher proportion of BAME legal professionals in younger age brackets, the association between age and ethnicity is a significant factor.
Law students, recent graduates and many trainees from non-traditional backgrounds, of which many are BAME, are feeling the pressure of the pandemic. For some, their living arrangements are filled with distractions or unsuitable for holding private conversations, making remote working a lot more challenging. Already faced with multiple career barriers, the last thing BAME professionals need according to Ed Vickers QC is for “the drive to widen equality and diversity in the profession – and ultimately the judiciary – to be set back.”
What can be done?
Together, we need to find a way to protect and nurture young talent and stop them from ditching law for another career. Because that’s what could happen.
Short-term, reduced hiring can seem like a great way to save money. But long-term, it’ll have a major negative impact on firms and the industry as a whole. We’re talking severe skills gaps, seniority disparities, impeded industry progression and issues with productivity.
While these issues feel colossal and unmanageable, by taking small and steady steps, we can make a huge difference.
“Hire people of colour and put them in a position to succeed.”
1. Prioritise Diversity
The ways in which diversity adds to the commercial success of a firm are endless. Inclusive teams not only provide better counsel and more creative solutions, they financially outperform less diverse teams and improve a company’s market share.
A lot more can be done to support BAME equality in law during these challenging times. Dean Burell of the Garden State Bar Association states that the simplest way to help is to “hire people of colour and put them in a position to succeed”. Though support systems do need to be in place.
An excellent example of a firm going that extra mile is DLA Piper, who have created a scholarship for law students in developing countries, covering tuition fee and associated study costs, as well as offering leadership training in partnership with the University of Oxford’s Said Business School.
2. Reach Out To Junior Talent
This may seem obvious, but our top piece of advice here would be to talk to your junior staff. Send around an anonymous survey. Arrange one-on-ones. Have a group chat. Ask questions and you’ll find out how your firm can do better and improve processes.
The Junior Law Division has also shared the following advice:
- provide guidance on working from home, particularly on requesting work and asking for feedback from fee earners;
- encourage trainee solicitors to ask questions and to share their concerns so that the firm can respond accordingly; and
- offer mental health support to trainee solicitors at a time when we are all adjusting to significant changes which can put additional pressure on individuals.
3. Bring Back Mentoring and Training
Mentoring is still valid at this time. Your advice and guidance is just as important and relevant from behind a computer screen as it is in-person. So reintroduce it to your firm. Emerging talent are always very keen to learn so need face-time with senior partners. An hour of your time to give advice and share your experience is not much to you, but is so important to junior talent.
4. Encourage Remote Socialising
Socialising after work has taken on a whole new meaning with virtual quizzes, leaving parties and team nights out all moving online. It may feel like a drag to stay at your laptop after the working day is over, but it’s now more important than ever to keep the culture, fun and extracurricular activities of the company alive.
A lot of what you do in the office can be done virtually. PerkBox, company culture experts, have suggested several great ways to encourage fun relationship building activities. There’s huge uncertainty around the future so reminding junior talent that they’re part of a team is crucial for staff happiness. Morale is afterall a driver for productivity and engagement, so it needs to be nurtured.
5. Make Remote-work Work for Everyone
One thing we all have to remember is that people aren’t working from home. People are at home during a crisis trying to work. Whether it’s childcare, illness or any of the many issues we listed above, your staff have personal pressures, as well as professional, to deal with so try to approach every situation with empathy.
The virus isn’t going anywhere for a while so it’s important to make sure our remote ways of working are collaborative, transparent and inclusive. Video and telework have proven to be feasible for almost all employees and many legal activities, including court hearings, arbitrations and mediations. So, instead of using ‘work from home’ as an excuse to not pass work onto a more junior staff member, it should be used as a tool creating efficiencies and further transparency to build morale and inspire.
6. Retain Young Talent
Our junior staff have never been savvier. Like, ever. Don’t forget that this is the generation who grew up online, so ‘multi-skilled’ is an understatement. So make sure you utilise them. Whether it’s tech or translations, don’t be afraid to throw different tasks their way and watch them shine. You may even be surprised about what they can teach you.
A Final Note
Lastly and most importantly, for the sake of our young legal talent, please don’t do nothing. You may not be hiring. You may even be feeling under pressure yourself. But you can still help.
This pandemic isn’t going away, but talent will.
Let’s not lose it.