Last October, it was reported that over half of junior lawyers surveyed (by legal AI firm Luminance) were unable to cope with the stress of working during lockdown, in contrast to only 10 per cent of lawyers aged over 55 reporting similar difficulties. 

While this wasn’t solely an issue for junior lawyers – 42 per cent of all respondents expressed concern about the challenges they faced during the lockdown – it is clear that it is more acute for the junior members of the team.

The statistics do not surprise me and the respondent employers in the research recognised that one of their biggest challenges was managing and supervising junior lawyers. 

Let me be clear; I believe there are a number of benefits of working from home – the time you get back and the costs you save by avoiding the commute, the opportunity to do other things during the day – whether it is going out for a walk, doing some other jobs around the house, preparing meals, and so on ­– can create a sense of a better work-life balance. 

In a survey we conducted at Stowe Family Law, 75 per cent of our colleagues favoured retaining the ability to work from home in our long-term plans. However, at the heart of their preferences was the ability to choose to work flexibly between their home and the office, as best suited to the requirements of their role and their circumstances. 

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t pretend the last 12 months has been a bed of roses, with a considerable toll taken on colleagues who have had to adapt very quickly to a new way of working. 

The most immediate challenge, and one which perpetuates, is that extra magic ingredient you gain from being physically co-located with your colleagues. The ability to discuss issues spontaneously across the desks, while boiling the kettle and without having to book a Zoom or Teams call, makes the learning experience and the detection training needs and problems easier. Also, the amount that junior lawyers pick up from hearing their colleagues speak is not easy to measure, but undoubtedly significant. 

For those just starting their legal careers, they are missing out on valuable face-to-face time with experienced colleagues, as well as spending time meeting clients where the subtle inflections of voice or reading body language are lost in the virtual world we currently populate. 

Law firms thrive as collaborative endeavours. They often adopt a confederate structure, an inter-generational set up where young lawyers’ training is an everyday, ongoing activity.  

Dealing with isolation

The world of remote working is strange. We communicate in a virtual world where “you’re still on mute” is a commonly used phrase that will be a lasting legacy of lockdown, but it neatly illustrates the challenges of communicating with colleagues, clients and others through video conferencing. 

Video calls have embedded in our ways of working as a richer environment for communication than a telephone call, but it does lead to a more stilted way of discussing issues than a face-to-face meeting. 

We have also seen that when you don’t have your colleagues around you in the remote world, the first instinct is to focus on self-maintenance – “What do I need to do today? What tasks and activities do I need to clear today?” 

It can be easier for junior lawyers to get forgotten about – to make an assumption that unless they are asking for help, they must be ok. 

My managing partners are diligently checking in with their team members every day, but they report that this is taking more time than it would have done when we were all working together in offices. 

Building networks remotely 

Lawyers progress through their careers by developing networks and building relationships – whether that is a network of new business referrers, peers or senior colleagues inside and outside their employer firm, who recognise their talents, nurture them and further their careers. 

Lawyers start that journey from the moment they embark on their career, and building those networks takes both discipline, time and energy and require opportunity and a little bit of good fortune. 

Opportunity to meet for coffees, lunches or attend networking events virtually still exist, but be selective and concentrate on nurturing a few good quality relationships rather than feeling the need to attend every event. 

I know of lawyers who have just ceased all business development activity during the lockdown, writing it off as impossible to undertake. I disagree. 

We’ve all managed to maintain relationships with friends and family (in fact, I suspect some people have been more diligent in maintaining those relationships being more aware of how precious life is), and there’s no reason why we can’t seek to use the same technology to enable us to develop our professional relationships.  

Growth and development 

One thing I’ve noticed during lockdown is the proliferation of online training events. In many ways, the ability to join a breakfast seminar or lunch and learn from the comfort of your own home makes it far easier to attend such events without it otherwise taking up a disproportionate amount of your day. 

Lockdown has forced us to be more creative in how training is provided, giving people more opportunities to learn. However, as with networking events, be selective – you don’t need to attend every event. I know from a family law perspective that many of the barristers’ chambers and family lawyer organisations often hold courses on the same topics. It is helpful to hear different perspectives on topics, it will help reinforce your understanding, but don’t feel obliged to attend every single event. 

Supporting lawyers  

Over the last 12 months, we have been acutely aware that our junior lawyers should not be the forgotten generation. Here at Stowe, we have put in several initiatives to ensure we engage and support all our lawyers. 

While we are a national firm dispersed across different cities and towns, our focus has been on ensuring that, within each small team, people are looking out for each other and checking in. 

We have over 25 mental health champions across the firm who can support and signpost where professional help is needed. In the first lockdown, we launched an enhanced employee assistance programme to provide people with 24/7 medical, legal and emotional support.

We also delivered: 

·       A leadership development programme helping managing partners improve their coaching and management skills using remote technology;

·       Our first end-to-end technology-enabled workflow to support colleagues in delivering legal services more consistently and efficiently; 

·       Clear and consistent communication with regular business updates from the chair and executive team and sharing well-being tips and advice on our intranet;

·       Improved ways to acknowledge others’ contribution, whether via a handwritten postcard, a gift or a shout-out. 

The future of working 

The covid-19 pandemic has radically accelerated changing trends in how we work and deliver services to our clients and as a firm. We are contemplating how we might reflect these trends in our strategic decisions.

I anticipate that flexibility and choice will be the watchwords as we find the best ways for colleagues to interact and for clients to access our services.  

With the majority of our people wanting to combine home and office-based working post covid19, a hybrid model offering flexibility and choice is now at the heart of how we will operate moving forwards. 

Working from home certainly has its downsides, but with the right support and tools in place, lawyers can still feel connected, grow and develop. 

And to end on a positive note, the pandemic has brought a much-needed change in the law sector to its flexible working approach, with many more people now working in this way and enjoying an improved work-life balance. 

Julian Hawkhead is the Senior Partner at Stowe Family Law www.stowefamilylaw.co.uk

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