Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family in lockdown somewhere in England
Lots of people I know are being told they will be working at home until the end of the year, or in some cases they are being told working from home is going to be the new norm.
We don’t have a plan for returning to office-based work (or if we have I haven’t been told what it is). Being a high street firm we are very much driven by short term market forces, particularly in conveyancing, and I think it is probably the case that the longer we can use the furlough scheme the better, and so the longer term issue of returning to the office will only be considered when that comes to an end.
There are practical difficulties in working from home- for example, my work is still very paper-based and my phone app refuses to transfer my work calls to my mobile. On the other hand, there are also lots of small benefits- I’ve worn shorts almost every day and seen more of my husband. However, in this column I wanted to discuss an issue that is much more important.
My trainee recently qualified and went to work in another department. From home. Before this she spent six months in my room trying hard to not ask me questions. I was there for the questions - I remember every second of my training contract - all 63 million of them - and I spent at least half of those waiting for a good opportunity to ask a fee earner a question about a file - but still she worried about disturbing me.
The issue is, of course, supervision. Going back to my training contract, I had a lot of responsibility and a lack of formal supervision on mine. I had my own room. The family law solicitors were almost always too busy to answer questions. If I heard them laughing, or if I could make them laugh as I walked past them, I would then casually ask them one of my burning questions while they were in a good mood. The partner I 'worked with' in conveyancing, I quickly found out, was much more likely to be in the mood to discuss my files with me after he had relaxed with a pint or two at lunch. The secretaries, when they were speaking to me, were probably the most help.
It wasn’t right that I felt like this, or had to muddle through like this, but the point is that a trainee (or other junior member of staff) will probably always feel this way. However well they get on, they will always look up to their supervisor, who probably seems to churn through the work, and more complex work than them, whilst dealing with other competitors for their time such as management issues and more responsibilities at home.
Despite sitting a few feet away from me, my trainee would make a list of questions and wait for a good moment to ask me them all at once. It was actually a bit creepy - I would have my head down reading a document and when I eventually looked up she would be poised ready to catch my eye. I jumped out of my skin more than once. This no doubt reduced her productivity over the course of the day, and can’t have helped her in trying to provide a good service to clients. I certainly remember having to fob clients off because I didn’t know the answer to a question and had to wait for a good moment to ask someone. I specifically remember a conveyancing file sitting on my desk for ten days because I had a long set of replies to enquiries from the seller’s solicitors that I didn’t understand and kept putting off looking at.
If this was how my trainee felt working opposite me, and how I felt in an office full of people, how is she going to feel now, working from home? She has to pick up the phone if she has a query and disturb the person on the other end. She doesn’t know if they have just had ten phone calls in a row from irate clients, or are half way through drafting a statement, or have their door shut to concentrate, or really need a coffee before they can think. In fact, in the summer of 2020, she also doesn’t know if they are trying to homeschool at the same time as all of this, or trying to get someone off for a nap, or make even more snacks for the small gannets they may live with. She certainly can’t mull things over with a room full of secretaries.
The danger, therefore, is that she probably won’t ask for help. Again, this happened to me as a trainee in much easier circumstances. For some reason my firm thought I should deal with the sale of a fish and chip shop during my conveyancing seat. The senior partner was my supervisor, and he was actually more approachable than the rest but extremely laid back about most things including, well, the law, client service and management. The pre-contract stage went on for quite a while and I got to know the seller. It was only when I had a week off and the senior partner dealt with the matter, up to exchange of contracts, that the issue of TUPE was raised. The buyer didn’t want to keep the existing staff and it just hadn’t occurred to me that this was a problem. Although no harm was done as the client was given the correct advice pre-exchange, on my return to the office I was mortified and had to apologise to the client.
If us more senior lawyers are going to reap the benefits of working from home, we need to be aware that our more junior staff may be slowly going mad - more likely than us to be working all day in the same room they sleep in - with worry over questions they don’t know the answers to, and not having anyone they can easily ask. We must put new procedures in place to proactively supervise and protect them, their mental health and limit the risk of mistakes being made.
*Some facts and identities have been altered in the above article