By Matthew Kay
Matthew Kay looks at ways to keep junior lawyers engaged while working from home, and why it matters
Working with senior lawyers and being mentored by them is an important step at the beginning of a legal career. This experience on the job makes a huge difference to career prospects. But being virtually distanced from them has not come without its challenges for junior lawyers.
It has been hard for us all, but especially for those at the beginning of their legal life. Although lockdown measures have, at the time of writing, been eased we have not returned to normal. Some firms have deferred training contracts for prospective lawyers to next year, while others have placed their trainees on furlough until October this year.
It is against this backdrop that some lawyers will still be concerned about the future of their job. Thoughts and rumours may be circling around redundancy with newspapers propagating whisperings of an upcoming recession. A lawyer in a junior role may see themselves as ripe for the picking – a case of ‘last in first out’.
That being said, there have been many positives. Across the legal industry, we’ve been hearing that many lawyers are keen to remain working from home, enjoying the benefits of working in a familial space without the stressful daily commute.
We had 265 applications from would-be contract lawyers in June compared to 160 in May and 90 in April, equating to a 200 per cent uptick in just a few short months. We reckon this spike is somewhat down to lawyers seeing the benefits of working flexibly after being forced to work from home. Working remotely is not for everyone, but it’s interesting to see many lawyers have grown in confidence in working flexibly because they had no other option.
But for junior lawyers who are more likely to be working from the kitchen table and having to negotiate working spaces with their housemates, working remotely may not have been smooth sailing, as a recent article by Kate Beioley in the Financial Times highlighted.
For those who don’t have the comfort of a house with a study and a garden, work pressures could make them feel more isolated, trapped and less able to manage their work-life balance. The inability to see as many friends and family as previously, and to access their usual child support, could have impacted their mental health.
The Financial Times recently spoke to the chief executive of mental health charity LawCare, Elizabeth Rimmer, who reported: “There is a lot of anxiety among junior lawyers about exposing any weaknesses… online they have to be more visible about asking for help.” LawCare found that 42 per cent of the calls they received were related to covid-19; and the individuals calling were concerned with “childcare, family members with covid-19 and job security”.
All of these issues have a detrimental impact on employee engagement, which is a vital element of a successful business. Some studies have found that the more your employees are engaged – that is, where a company and its employees have an effective and supportive working environment where employees feel encouraged to do their best – the more your business is likely to have a productive workforce, who take fewer sick days and is more driven and creative in fulfilling business objectives.
This helps businesses on the whole retain talent and creates an efficient and effective workforce.
The development dud
Many legal professionals would agree with the notion that junior lawyers can speed up their career advancement under the watchful and present supervision of a senior lawyer.
There are worries that junior lawyers’ development may have been held back because of the pandemic. Yet if most staff work remotely in the near future, how will this improve if no clear directions are made? This was highlighted recently in a letter to The Daily Telegraph from a trainee solicitor who wrote: “I believe a fundamental part of my training contract will be spent observing, listening and learning from senior lawyers in person through my working day. I struggle to see how this could truly be replicated virtually.”
Many law firms, including Pinsent Masons, have started to cautiously plan the reopening of their offices with a limited amount of staff (adhering to the current government guidelines). We don’t know when things will return to normal and offices become full once again, but it certainly won’t be any time soon.
With working from home looking more permanent, careful consideration needs to be given to what development opportunities there are for junior lawyers. If they feel unsupported and that the firm doesn’t care about their development, they are less likely to be engaged. This could negatively affect the firm’s business prospects in the long term.
So, for those who lack the luxury of their own home, close family nearby and less experience and confidence in their role, what can firms do to nurture their talent and keep them engaged when times are tough and uncertainty still abounds?
Here are some tips on how to structure training and development programmes for your junior lawyers, with a coordinated and considered approach for the future.
Improve communication and supervision – Assess how heads of department and partners are communicating with their team. Are they keeping up good habits? Even though working from home has become a new normal, regular communication within teams is still essential. Working remotely until the new year may be rather foreboding for some junior lawyers who will be concerned that they will miss out on vital development opportunities. There may be a feeling that their career has been put on pause and that this could impact talented lawyers’ productivity and enthusiasm for the job.
Regular communication such as daily catchups, side-by-side virtual working, frequent chats about development and wellbeing conversations will keep lawyers engaged. Knowing that the senior partners in their team still care about their junior lawyers’ careers will bring reassurance and confidence. Communication will also mean partners can identify problems easily and are, therefore, able to introduce bespoke support. It’s also worth introducing regular pulse surveys (if you haven’t already). This means asking questions on engagement, job satisfaction and work-life balance. This can give you a good indicator of how your staff are doing, and if done anonymously, it can encourage those who are reluctant to speak about any difficulties they’re facing. It can also allow you to spot patterns, see where problems typically arise and take appropriate action to resolve the issues.
Some lawyers at the start of their career may feel isolated and you should not scrap any firmwide initiatives you introduced during lockdown. For example, at Pinsent Masons we held webinars which have included sessions on working from home effectively and how to maintain domestic harmony. We’ve also set up an online portal, Mind Matters, for our employees which publishes helpful articles and tools on wellbeing and mental health.
This is in addition to initiatives introduced through the Mindful Business Charter (MBC), which was originally founded in 2018 by Pinsent Masons, Addleshaw Goddard and Barclays bank and aims to create a healthy working approach. The code of conduct of the charter requires openness and respect, respecting rest periods, smart meetings and emails, and mindful delegation.
Keep training – Continue providing further training. Hold webinars with inspiring senior lawyers; offer tips on how to make the most of working flexibly; offer language courses and or any professional qualifications which can help junior lawyers to progress. Remember that if you’ve had to furlough staff you can still provide training during this time, so when they do return to the workplace they will be better prepared. You can also consider introducing senior mentorships.
Pinsent Masons runs a number of mentoring schemes. For example, in Scotland and Northern Ireland the firm, supported by the LawScot Foundation, offers the Kirk Murdoch Scholarship. This includes financial support, a place on the firm’s summer vacation scheme, the opportunity of starting a training contract and mentoring. Mentoring is a great way to help junior lawyers learn from the experience of senior members of their team.
Help deal with demanding clients – Provide junior lawyers with experience in how to deal with demanding clients who push the boundaries. Experience of managing clients and their expectations is an important development point for lawyers. Exposing them to challenges (within their role) provides learning opportunities.
Clients want a lawyer who knows their business inside out, their philosophy, their purpose and practical needs and who can foresee problems and identify solutions. Clients also want lawyers who care. They want a lawyer to foresee problems before they spot them themselves. Building up relationships and trust are important parts of that, so open up opportunities to shadow senior lawyers in meetings with clients.
Covid-19 has forced law firms to recalibrate. They’ve had to direct resources where clients are most in need and this allows more opportunity for junior lawyers to specialise in an area relating to covid-19. For example, insurance, litigation, restructuring and employment are the main areas where commercial clients need legal advice.
In the months to come, firms will need to continue building these departments where they are most in demand, but this provides ample experience for junior lawyers. Keep them abreast of changes and challenges and how the firm plans to adapt in the next few months – and also what positive development opportunities this holds for them.
Use better tech to improve efficiency – Reassess the technology you’ve been using. What stumbling blocks have you come across using certain software, cloud systems and client communication tools? Is it inefficient and causing a headache, slowing down productivity? It’s wise to reflect on how efficient the tech has been during the lockdown; what can be improved now; and how you can continue using tech that will maintain your efficiency and enhance productivity.
Reflecting and implementing these suggestions will be helpful for working to maintain lawyer engagement through this tricky period.
For junior lawyers, knowing that the firm’s senior members value their work and care about their development will bring positive contributions in the long run.
Matthew Kay is the managing director of Vario from Pinsent Masons pinsentmasonsvario.com