News

Junior lawyer mental health hit hardest by lockdown, research reveals

By on
31

When compared with WFH experience of senior solicitors

A third of junior lawyers believe their mental health declined as a result of the coronavirus lockdowns compared to a quarter of senior solicitors.

This was one of the headline findings in new research undertaken by legal recruiters Douglas Scott about the effect of lockdown on lawyers’ mental health.

The research shows that working from home has been a positive or neutral experience for the majority of the 3,100 solicitors surveyed across England and Wales, but over one in four believe it has had a negative impact on their mental health.

The data suggests that 90% of all lawyers worked from home during the recent lockdowns, and 28% believed the experience had a negative impact on their mental health.

Nearly half (47%) of legal professionals adversely affected did not believe they received adequate levels of support from their employers when they worked from home.

Those employed in corporate law departments were most likely to believe the experience had a negative impact on their mental health, according to the research. This could be down to the long hours and tight deadlines experienced by many in the trade, or the uncertainty around the economic impact on financing and appetite for deals.

The 2021 Legal Cheek Firms Most List

Commenting on the findings, Jonathan Nolan, associate director at Douglas Scott, told Legal Cheek: “Law firms should be commended for enabling home working for 90% of legal professionals with very little notice and for the majority the experience has been positive or neutral at worst.”

He continued:

“However, a significant number have had a negative experience, and maybe employers can change that story by switching up the levels of support provided.”

LawCare chief Elizabeth Rimmer shared with us some of the reasons why juniors, in particular, have been adversely affected by home-working during lockdown. “We know that lockdown is having a significant impact on junior lawyers; 50% of our support contacts last year were from junior lawyers,” she said. “Deterioration in mental health, struggles with working from home, isolation and poor supervision were common concerns shared with us.”

“The most vulnerable time in anyone’s legal career is making that transition into practice and it’s particularly tough to embark on a legal career during these uncertain and difficult times, she continued. We would urge legal workplaces to reach out and listen to the concerns of junior staff and take active steps to provide them with support and nurturing supervision.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson predicted last month that a return to office-based working is likely in “a few short months”. This could improve the situation for junior solicitors, many of whom were keener to return to the office in some form after the crisis had passed than their more senior colleagues, according to research undertaken after the first national lockdown in the summer.

Feeling stressed? Contact LawCare.

Sign up to the Legal Cheek Newsletter

31 Comments

US Associate

I mean working 15 hour days at a camping table at the foot of my bed does not help to be honest.

(63)(0)

Lambert

Would you rather do that in the office though

(2)(3)

MC trainee

Yes. Whilst my firm has been good on considering trainees and ensuring supervision as best it can, I don’t think senior people quite grasp how awful it is. Most trainees are in house shares or live alone in small apartments. The learning by osmosis and being able to sit round the partners table and listen in on calls without being announced: gone. The little walks, coffee breaks and lunchtime chats with your cohort: gone. The ability to bond with your new colleagues and get used to living in London: gone.

We’re expected to perform as well as normal and don’t even get me started on having to choose where to qualify (a huge life choice) having only experienced the work and team remotely. We all know it’s a tough gig in usual circumstances, but to have the little bits of respite removed and having to do what is essentially a 2 year job interview in these circumstances is so damn hard and I can’t wait to be back in the office.

If any other trainees are feeling exhausted, isolated and anxious you’re not alone.

(93)(3)

Rand

This is so spot on.

WFH is really harming those at the junior end of the profession.

(4)(1)

anon

Being a trainee and making the jump to NQ is pretty tough even without Covid. This still doesn’t seem to stop partners treating trainees/juniors like dirt.

(25)(1)

Spill the beans

Be more specific. How have you been treated like dirt? In what way do partners treat juniors like dirt?

(1)(14)

Tim

It would actually be helpful if people didn’t speak in vague phrases on here. They say something really important but don’t elaborate – what use is that to anyone else reading?

You could do a really good job of ensuring aspiring solicitors are prepared for the “beasting” that is to come and tell them the reality of how partners are during the TC and to junior associates. That way at least they know what partners are like and what many trainees before them have gone through.

It’s not about people trying to be nosy and find out what’s going on in others personal and professional lives but it’s really key to make life as a trainee and associate considerably more transparent than they currently are.

(5)(3)

Anon

My experience doing most of the last year of my TC in lockdown was appalling. We were working until all hours with shit technology (I had to buy my own monitors, my own computer to run the virtual desktop because the laptops they gave to trainees were tiny and needed to be replaced – about a grand of investment, none of it reimbursed). Nobody had any sympathy for how difficult it was to work under those conditions, and trainees were left doing the very screen/computer heavy work of making bibles etc. It wasn’t so bad if you were just typing emails or word documents all day like the partners and senior associates.

Regardless of tech issues, my firm made zero effort to keep us connected. No zoom drinks, no fun stuff. Just nothing. The only communication I had with anyone for several months was basically people ringing me to yell at me Also everyone was shit at giving instructions over the phone, nobody bothered to screenshare anything. It was just a nightmare. Then a load of us weren’t retained and were given basically no notice.

(36)(2)

Inspector Bantz

Spill the beans or GTFO: which firm?

(12)(0)

Bob

I feel your pain, but what about the paralegal who went through the same. Or those who are unemployed..at least you qualify at the end of it…? All that aside, the article is about mental health, not the fact that you had to buy your own monitor.

(2)(32)

Inspector Bantz

Ah Bob, I see you only read the first half of the comment so completely missed the part about their mental health struggles with working from home with little to no support.

(11)(0)

Jay

When it comes to stories like this, I seriously wish people would expose law firms.

These are the kinds of things which aspiring lawyers need to hear when making decisions about their future firm.

Grad rec love to put a pretty spin on everything and the law firm marketing makes everything sound amazing when clearly people at the firm would beg to differ.

(21)(0)

Rolando

Give us a clue about the law firm without saying the law firm

(3)(0)

4th seater

Yo you need to quit that shitty ass firm. My firm gave me WFH equipment, decent laptop, weekly supervisor calls, and has generally done alright with a bad situation. No one has yelled at me once and people are sympathetic to the crappy times these are. Quit. That. Bullshit. Firm. You’re worth more than that.

(6)(0)

Northern paralegal en route to qualifying

Fundamentally, WFH full-time (or just for most of the time) is not a level playing field between junior and senior fee earners in the same way a shared office space is. Partners and senior staff desperately need to grasp this, or communicate better that they understand.

(16)(1)

Anonymous

Most people prefer working from home.

(5)(15)

Come on lad

Mediocre people working mediocre jobs & older people with established managerial jobs & people with ridiculous commutes & people looking to slack off on Fridays are not the subject of this article.

Besides, you could still downsize & allow people to WFH while having an office for younger people and those who would value it for whatever other reason (e.g. those living in cramped quarters).

This kind of dumb majoritarianism is most often seen in the comments of the FT, which makes it near-guaranteed to be wrong.

(5)(5)

Ashworths

All the old farts who bang on about WFH being ‘the future’ need to read this. 1 or 2 days of WFH for second year trainees or trainees close to the end of their seat may be okay (depending on the circumstances of course). It can be built up to and experimented with. Full WFH is beyond ludicrous.

(20)(2)

Partner

What about the billable hours though? No commute, so I expect a bumper year.

(0)(0)

2nd year MC trainee

From what I’ve seen it clear that the people over 35 with families, established careers, and nice big houses in the commuter belt are absolutely loving WFH. This backs up the high percentage of people want to WFH as approximately 70% of lawyers are over 35 and likely to be in the category described above.

Trainees who want to WFH forever are, in my view, being incredibly short sighted too. Surely they can see that those people in the office will progress in their careers faster (mainly due to relationship building possibilities) and a WFH trainee is essentially a resource (like a paralegal team or the documents experts/ proofreaders etc.).

I’ve also found the WFH setup and experience as an MC trainee to be mixed. On one hand you have the seamless transition into working from home (we were provided with hundreds of pounds to spend as we saw fit to improve our setups). On the other hand, and arguably more importantly, the supervision and learning experience has fallen of a cliff. My supervisor only called when she needed something and never asked how I was or made any small talk. This was replicated for almost any associate I worked with, except in reality I was just working “for” them. I constantly felt like a resource, never felt included in the team and on the once a month 20 person zoom calls no one ever seemed to realise we were there. If a terrible capacity request came into the trainee mailing list and no one replied in a few minutes we would be emailed telling us that according to our timesheets we had capacity to help and someone needed to pick this up.
One trainee was told by their supervisor that he hadn’t got in touch for a few days because he “had sort of forgotten about him”. Out of sight out of mind is truer than ever.
In general there just seemed to be no consideration of the considerably worse end of the stick trainees were dealt.

Personally I’ve never had any issues with mental health in my life and would consider myself to be a mentally resilient person, however I’ve really felt my mental health slipping over the last few months. This is probably due to the working environment I’m in, feeling that nothing positive to look forward to, a future of question marks over quali leave, career development and a general feeling of frustration and helplessness that no one is looking out for, or even thinking about, us. By “us” I mean the young people who have silently sacrificed so much over the last year.

All of this is balanced with the fact that I have a great, highly paid job and therefore I cannot complain or raise my frustrations as there are people in much worse positions who have lost jobs, businesses or lives. This all compounds my anxiety and frustration.

WFH I feel constantly on edge, as if I step away from my computer for anymore than a few minutes it will be assumed that I’m just bunking off and watching Netflix, rather than doing a legitimate workday activity like going for a walk or getting lunch.

There’s expectation that you can work whenever. I had calls at midnight where I’m relaxing with my flatmate (having legitimately clocked off at 6/7) from associates asking for immediate help on things. If we were in the office they would spot that you’ve gone and likely realise it can wait till tomorrow or send it to the document team rather than assume you’ll drop everything to help.

I’ve done all nighters where associates have asked me to complete tasks and when I’ve told them I’m at capacity on other matters that “it shouldn’t take long” and that’s the end of the discussion. When you’re working from your bedroom an all nighter is not very nice and no one knows/appreciates/give time in lieu.

Cue people telling me to set boundaries blah blah blah – I want to do well at work and maximise my chances of qualification and therefore feel obliged to pick up that call or work through the night etc.

A small additional thing – working past 7.30 means free dinner at work, so it would be a nice touch if the same was extended to WFH.

(46)(0)

Anonymous US trainee

I don’t think I could have articulated this any better myself (a second-seat trainee at a US firm). The lack of visibility when it comes to working all-nighters, working at the weekend, and being made to work on holidays is a constant source of frustration. Whilst in the office, people would inevitably see that you’ve been worked to the point of exhaustion and short-changed with regard to your supposed ‘rest’ periods, working from home means that no one can see this at all. All they seem to see is the individual task that they have set you. The exhaustion is very real. I 100% agree about feeling like a ‘resource’ above all else. Colleagues seldom have the time to reach out for a chat that is not work-related, and a lot of the time it feels like I’m a robot that processes and churns out tasks, day and night.

We were also told that when we don’t have capacity to take on a new piece of work, we shouldn’t waste people’s time by telling them what we are otherwise occupied with. This gave me the impression that people would rather bury their heads in the sand than actually realise that you’re inundated and struggling. It also makes it harder to say ‘no’ to a request.

I hope Summer is better.

(30)(0)

WFH IS BAD

For a lot of people, it’s not really about working from home. When a lot of people say they wish they could “work from home” what they REALLY mean is “I don’t want to do my commute” or “I don’t want to be around my shitty colleagues”/”shitty boss”/”shitty work environment”, or simply “I hate my job”. I mean, if you work a shitty retail job or whatever, of course working from home sounds like some kind of paradise in comparison.

I keep telling people that what you really want (in addition to not having ridiculous commutes like London) is freedom. i.e. flexible hours and working from home when needed. In other words, the freedom to come and go as you please.

(13)(0)

Anon lawyer

There are too many snowflakes in the comments section. A lot of the issues described above are part and parcel of being a trainee in an international city law firm. All nighters at the last minute, unexpected weekend work, thinking you have a free evening only to get an urgent call at 10pm to help on something – this is all a very ‘normal’ part of city BigLaw – rightly or wrongly I am afraid that is what you signed up for. If you don’t like it then move firms – not every lawyer works in the MC/US firms and there are plenty of other career options for people who want a more regular 9-5.

Also – what is stopping YOU from calling colleagues for a chart, from reaching out with questions, from asking for assistance, from being proactive and asking to sit in on calls etc? When we were allowed to meet up last summer lots of people at my office went for a walk, or for a few beers outside with their colleagues. Stop expecting to just sit there and be summoned you also have to make an effort.

Rookie error trainees and juniors make by thinking that if they say yes to everything they will somehow have better job prospects. It doesnt work like this. Being reliable/proactive/understanding the issues and doing a good job goes a lot further than being a yes man/woman.

Also – not every lawyer above 35 has a family and/or a mansion in the suburbs. Plenty of senior associates live alone in small flats/not ideal living conditions and also have to manage and take responsibility for the deal so it is tough for everyone not just the juniors.

(8)(22)

Anonymous

Gold medal contender in the missing the point olympics; use of the snowflake trope is a cheap, easy, and meaningless thing to say here. The issue is not the demands of ‘BigLaw’ (was anyone truly naive about that before signing up?) or a lack of willingness to be proactive. It is the fact that WFH makes the transitionary period in a lawyer’s career difficult in ways not felt or readily acknowledged by senior staff, and exacerbates problems with demands that are more easily overcome or not felt in the office environment. It isn’t just about living conditions, it’s about everything else mentioned elsewhere in the comments. There’s a reason for offices in the first place.

(16)(2)

KE trainee

Lol get in the bin you boomer.

(7)(1)

US Trainee

Is there any point telling HR that your supervisor has little interest, he is too busy, in training/supervising you?

Or is this putting a target on your back?

(5)(0)

Anon MC

I’ve experienced that my firm holds updates or trainee town halls to check in. But you have to be naive to think that mentioning anything will a) change anything or b) not harm your chances of qualification if you’re seen to be ratting on your supervisor (who has struggles of their own and would certainly take it personally). No one says anything, myself included; it’s in our collective interest but the problem is the timeline to change is too long and the impetus has to come from above or a change in human nature.

(0)(0)

US Trainee

Cheers, exactly what I was thinking!

To be honest, I can’t imagine it’s easy to supervise remotely so will cut him some slack.

(0)(0)

Irritated senior associate

Read all the comments above. Honestly cry me a river trainees. In the last recession of 2008 our training contracts were deferred and we couldn’t even get part time bar jobs. The economy has taken a huge dive during covid – count your lucky stars that you are employed whilst others are not and continue working from the foot of your beds.

(3)(18)

Boo hoo

They say – typing this from their separate office with their lovely family who they want to spend time with.

“It wAs WoRsE iN mY dAy”

Yes – we have jobs, that’s not the point we’re making.

WFH is disproportionately worse for the less experienced members of the team and profession and will have far reaching consequences for our career progression.

After 2008, although delayed, you came into a hugely growing economy with maximum room for speedy climbing of the ladder. Some of the youngest partners I know came in post 2008 and used the vacuum of employees to explode their way to the top. Let’s also not get started on all the benefits (pension, economy, housing prices) you all enjoyed.

Frankly, it’s almost preferable to delay a TC than work 3/4 of it from home.

Entitled.

(11)(0)

Anon

That’s because there wasn’t the work or money coming in in 2008 to sustain the number of lawyers. That’s not something law firms could really fix, so it’s a false comparison.

In Covid, there is plenty of work, plenty of profit and plenty that firms can do to help junior staff. That is why it’s galling how little is being done.

Yes, you should be grateful you do a job that you can do from home; but that doesn’t excuse firms from leaving junior staff to struggle when doing it.

(7)(0)

Comments are closed.

Related Stories