Law firms thrive as a collaborative endeavor, often adopting a corporate structure, an inter-generational framework where the training of lawyers is a daily activity.
Working during lockdown has prevented this daily attention and has significantly affected junior lawyers, says a report by Legal Cheek last October. While lockdown working has negatively affected 42% of all respondents, half of the junior lawyers felt unable to cope compared to only 10% of lawyers over 55 reporting feeling the same.
These statistics are unsurprising in the context of respondent employers reporting that one of their biggest challenges was managing and supervising junior lawyers. While the structure of a barrister’s chambers is of course very different by nature, there is still a great deal of effort being made by heads of chambers, CEOs, clerks and other staff members to ensure junior barristers are receiving enough support from a distance.
Barristers freshly embarking on their careers are missing out on valuable face-to-face contact with experienced fellow barristers and mentors. The virtual world that they currently inhabit also deprives them of spending time with clients where they might learn non-verbal communication skills like subtle inflections of voice and body language.
There are a number of benefits of working from home (WFH as we call it): money saved by not commuting; time freed to go for a walk, prepare a meal, or simply relax. The outcome can be a sense of greater work-life balance.
At Stowe Family Law, our own survey found that 75% of colleagues favoured retaining the ability to work from home. Their primary desire was the flexibility to choose the combination of work from home and office that best suits the demands of their role and circumstances.
The past 12 months have not however been plain sailing for the legal world. A considerable toll has been taken on colleagues who have had to adapt at lightning speed to the new way of working imposed upon us all by the pandemic.
The most pressing challenge is re-creating the intangible magic that can come from being together in physical proximity, interacting as a team. The spontaneity to stick on the kettle while we discuss issues across our desks disappears with Zoom or Teams calls.
This makes it harder to detect training needs in the moment and weakens the learning environment as a whole. We can’t be sure how much junior lawyers and barristers benefit from hearing their colleagues/ fellow members of chambers speak because it’s not quantifiable, but experience tells us the benefits would be significant.
Dealing with isolation when WFH.
“You’re still on mute” has become a common refrain of the lockdown, a world that is remote technically and remote from our customs as social animals. The phrase exemplifies the challenges of communicating through video conferencing. While video calls may provide a richer environment for communication than the humble telephone call, they lead to a more stilted way of discussing things than a face-to-face meeting.
Cut off from co-workers and isolated in the remote world, the first instinct seems to be to focus on self-maintenance: “What do I have to do today” What tasks or activities do I need to clear?”
Junior barristers may become “out of sight and out of mind” with perhaps an assumption that they must be fine unless they are reaching out for help. We have found that our Managing Partners report that the time taken up by checking in daily with team members is far greater than when we were all working together in offices. Checking in on our colleagues’ wellbeing is not just a box ticking exercise, it’s a meaningful and important responsibility which itself reaps its own rewards in having a healthier, happier, more productive workforce. Just because barristers are self-employed doesn’t mean that many chambers aren’t putting extra efforts in place to check in on members, especially junior barristers who are still trying to decide how they want to develop their practice.
Building a profile and networks remotely
Lawyers’ and barristers’ careers develop by building relationships and networking with new business referrers, peers or senior co-workers who may come from inside or outside of their own organisation. These contacts include those who will further their careers by recognising and nurturing their talents.
Fostering these relationships starts from the outset, and it takes discipline, time and energy, as well as opportunity and a little luck to build these networks successfully.
It is still possible to meet people for coffee or attend networking events (albeit virtually), but it is wise to be selective and nurture a few good quality relationships rather than feeling driven to participate in every event.
Some lawyers have written off business development as impossible to undertake during the lockdown, but I disagree. Just as we’ve managed to maintain relationships with friends and family during lockdown, we can use the same technology to develop our professional relationships.
Growth and development
Online training events have increased during the lockdown and offered the ability to join a breakfast or lunch seminar from the comfort of our own home without it taking a disproportionate amount of time out of your day.
Again, it pays to be selective. It is helpful to hear a range of perspectives on a given topic, but you do not need to attend every event; often, barristers’ chambers and family lawyer organisations hold courses on the same topic anyway.
The past 12 months have arguably been more important than ever for law firms and barristers’ chambers to instigate measures to engage and support lawyers and ensure junior lawyers don’t feel like the forgotten generation.
For barristers’ chambers and law firms that are dispersed across various towns and cities, the focus should be on safeguarding each small team, making sure that people are looking out for one another.
Here at Stowe, we have a firm-wide support programme in place, offering all out staff support with mental health issues, including 25 mental health champions nationally who can signpost where professional help is required and support its provision. We also have an enhanced Employee Assistance Programme to provide round-the-clock medical, legal and emotional support.
We have also launched several initiatives in lockdown that firms may find helpful including, training programmes for managers to deliver coaching and managing skills using remote technology; technology that improves the efficient delivery of legal services; business updates and swapping of tips via a staff intranet; and building acknowledgement into a firms’ conduct with one another so that everyone feels valued.
The future of working in law
Lockdown has massively accelerated trends in how legal services are delivered and forced us to reassess our strategic decision-making.
Flexibility and choice are becoming watchwords as we strive for optimal colleague interaction and optimal delivery of services to our clients.
The overwhelming desire expressed by many to combine home and office-based working post-pandemic has resulted in many law firms placing a hybrid model offering flexibility and choice thanks to the implementation of technology. Barristers are experiencing increased flexibility and choice which, for many, is having a positive impact on their practice. They can choose to attend a remote court hearing in Birmingham in the morning and another in London in the afternoon, which wouldn’t have been feasible pre-pandemic.
While working from home has its indisputable downsides, lawyers can still grow, develop, and feel connected with the right support and tools.
To finish on a positive note, with the pandemic has come a much-needed change to traditional and inflexible working practices in the legal sector. A more mature and trusting attitude has developed, with staff helping lawyers and barristers divide their time between office and home, bringing an enhanced work-life balance to all.
Julian Hawkhead is the Senior Partner at Stowe Family Law