The Power of Words
By Nicola Laver
Our collective lexicon has slowly expanded since the start of the pandemic. A mere six months ago, many of us had never heard of Zoom, Microsoft Teams or furlough – words that now trip off the tongue with little thought. Phrases we wouldn’t have considered using a year ago – ‘stay safe’, ‘keep well,’ ‘unprecedented’, ‘the new normal’ – today pepper our speech, our letters and email signatures. Then there are the acronyms – covid-19 and CJRS (coronavirus jobs retentions scheme), for example.
And as I ponder how to approach this foreword, I’m handed a new one. BAU (business as usual) which, as it turns out from a quick google search, isn’t so new after all. It’s testament to the powerful impact of language, and I think brave, that the authors of the latest Bellwether report entitled it OMG or BAU? For law firm leaders, this report on the impact of covid-19 on smaller firms makes for heartening reading and asserts that some firms are thriving in – wait for it – the ‘new BAU’. It’s somewhat of an oxymoron but we get its meaning.
It can’t be ‘BAU’ because this extended period is anything but ‘usual’ for firms; and nothing can simultaneously be ‘new’ and ‘usual’. Rather, firms need to establish their new BAU while navigating the shifting sands of this crisis, particularly as, according to the report, covid-19 is ‘the new Brexit’ as far as the challenges for firms are concerned. This report, worth reading if you’re particularly feeling glum as the typical English August weather, is peppered with reassuring language such as ‘bullish’, ‘confidence is high’, ‘resilient demand’, ‘moment of opportunity’ and ‘faith’. It concludes that the covid-19 crisis has changed the way the legal industry needs to operate; yet acknowledges that firms “have made years of progress in a matter of weeks”. On firms’ operational response, one respondent commented: “There are decades where nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen.” On the theme of working from home (WFH if you must), the report found isolation was the primary concern for nearly twice as many junior lawyers than senior lawyers. They miss “the buzz of the office” and networking opportunities.
Worryingly, those at the start of their careers were concerned at “reduced support and oversight from managers”. Any firm neglecting the oversight of their junior lawyers is disregarding their regulatory obligations. We may be navigating a crisis but the regulator has made clear it expects firms to fulfil those obligations notwithstanding the enforced changes in working practices. Firms need to adapt to ensure they can still effectively support and supervise their trainees and young lawyers. In this month’s cover feature (see page 22) there are plenty of refreshing examples of how firms are putting this into practice. It’s indisputable that technology is the gamechanger here: without Zoom, screen sharing capabilities, group chats and so on, the ability to meaningfully supervise the most junior lawyers would be virtually non-existent.
Supervision need not stop once your regulatory duties are discharged. Senior lawyers are more likely to have family and or an established circle of friends for support. On the other hand, trainees and junior lawyers are more likely to live alone or with a house/flatmate and away from family, which is partly why they feel isolated. So firms ought to be adopting a holistic approach towards supervision to reflect the individual’s specific circumstances and needs, rather than a prescriptive approach that may discharge their regulatory obligations - but goes little further to support the individual.
A regular ‘coffee and cake’ Zoom chat where work isn’t discussed is an excellent start and reflects our basic human need for social interaction – even if virtual. One Bellwether survey respondent said: “Despite the crisis, we need to ‘keep calm and carry on’… as a start, that may be enough.” But it won’t be enough in the longer term for firms determined to thrive in the face of the pandemic and beyond.