Over the past few months, for better or worse, we have all embraced technology as a tool to maintain the human interaction we once took for granted. As we enter this new way of living and working, the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) is asking what the legal profession will look like for junior lawyers (solicitor apprentices, LPC students and graduates, trainee solicitors, and solicitors with up to five years’ post-qualification experience).
Working from home
Junior lawyers rely on feedback and supervision to grow. The advantage of being in an office is that supervisors and/or experienced lawyers are close by to answer any burning questions.
Irrespective of office culture, and perhaps more reflective of a desire to avoid being a nuisance, junior lawyers often have to muster up the courage to ask questions. Trying to find the opportune moment to ask your supervisor a question on an issue that is stumping you is not an uncommon dilemma. However, social cues are easier to navigate in the office. For example, an open door might be a solicitor’s non-verbal way of saying ‘I am free’ and therefore an invitation to ask away.
But how do junior lawyers ask those questions when working from home? With fewer (if any) social cues to work from, there is a risk that their training and development is hindered. Of course, picking up the phone is always an option and emails still exist. But the former requires junior lawyers to have the courage to call out of the blue in the hope a supervisor is not busy. The latter ignores the benefit of conversation, where points can be put across more easily.
Both trainees and newly qualified solicitors want to make a good impression with clients and within the firm. However, making a good impression is difficult when interactions take place via a computer
Alternatively, junior lawyers may organise a time to ask their question(s). However, this could be stalling progress – rather than ask a question as soon as it arises, and therefore immediately deal with the issue, junior lawyers may find themselves saving up questions to ask all at once. By then, the client’s progress could stall, other issues could arise and stress could snowball because of a feeling of being stuck.
Working from home looks set to stay. While it may be a welcome change from a work/life balance perspective, the risks it poses to training and development for junior lawyers cannot be ignored. An open-door culture needs to continue in this new working environment for all lawyers’ development and mental wellbeing. Weekly check-ins with a supervisor or giving permission for juniors to book in monthly Zoom-coffees in your diary could make all the difference.
Making an impression
Both trainees and newly qualified solicitors want to make a good impression with clients and within the firm. However, making a good impression is difficult when interactions take place via a computer. More happens behind the scenes when you are not sharing an office or seeing clients face to face. Online meetings offer some semblance of a connection, but it is not the same as meeting in person.
Looking to the future, junior lawyers face the difficult challenge of making good impressions in an increasingly faceless legal profession. If face-to-face meetings are reserved for exceptional circumstances only, junior lawyers need to find alternative ways to network effectively with clients. If there are opportunities for virtual face time with clients, consider whether you could invite a junior. For example, if you are offering virtual client training, allowing the junior just five minutes to deliver one of the slides is a helpful platform for them in terms of client interaction and presentation skills.
It will be the junior lawyers of today that deal with the changing demands of the clients of tomorrow. Recognising demand and meeting it will be one way they can make a lasting impression. What extra skills could we all be learning during this time? For example, litigators may need to learn how to mediate online as clients seek to embrace online dispute resolution in a world where even settlement negotiations are carried out remotely.
It is important that law firms think about such developments so they can properly invest and be ready for the new normal.
Those looking to enter the profession face unique challenges too. Finding a job in an economic downturn is not easy. Finding one in the legal profession is even harder. Without a steady flow of new trainee solicitors, there is the risk of a skills gap in a few years as the economy recovers.
Ultimately, the key to easing the uncertainty for everyone seems to be communication. Those at the more senior end of our profession should ensure that they share their wisdom and what they can of those behind-the-scenes moves. And juniors should also be looking to develop their skills in making an impression and keeping a presence during these challenging times.
What new era resolutions will you commit to taking forward?
Callum Reed is an LPC student at Cardiff University and the LPC representative on the Junior Lawyers Division executive committee