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Will office returns boost junior lawyer morale?

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Heavy workloads coupled with lockdown isolation has left many trainees and associates struggling to cope. To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Legal Cheek‘s Aishah Hussain looks at the impact office returns could have on the profession’s most junior

As corona restrictions ease and law firms prepare to open their offices once more, the junior end of the solicitor profession can heave a sigh of relief. Or can they?

We’ve reported extensively that remote-working is taking its toll on trainees and junior lawyers, with many feeling overworked, isolated, and frustrated at the lack of support they receive from seniors.

“The supervision and learning experience has fallen off a cliff … I’ve really felt my mental health slipping over the last few months,” one trainee told us. “A lot of the time it feels like I’m a robot that processes and churns out tasks, day and night.”

“I don’t think senior people quite grasp how awful it is,” added another. “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.”

But will a return to the office boost morale among junior lawyers?

Speaking to Legal Cheek during Mental Health Awareness Week, Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive officer of lawyer mental health and wellbeing charity, LawCare, told us: “From the conversations we’ve had with junior lawyers many will welcome a return to the office, for greater supervision, camaraderie and a chance to develop more healthy boundaries between work life and home.”

But she cautioned against a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, noting that different lawyers will have different needs. “It’s important to note that one size does not fit all,” she said. “We’d like to see firms considering the needs of each individual in the post-Covid working world.”

So far, it appears that they are. City law firms haven’t taken such a hardline approach in their post-Covid working arrangements, with many opting for a ‘hybrid model’ that will see lawyers split their time between the office and home. It’s a cautious approach that contrasts with that taken by investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan. Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon hit headlines back in February when he slammed WFH as “an aberration” and advocated a return to office-based working. A month later, juniors at the bank spoke out about “inhumane” working conditions, including “100-hour work weeks” and “abuse” from colleagues which they claim has severely affected their mental health. Ropes & Gray, meanwhile, has done away with the expectation its lawyers in London, and globally, must be in the office for five days a week, as we reported on Wednesday.

The 2021 Legal Cheek Firms Most List

City lawyer and self-styled “happiness coach” Tor Hatton took a similar stance to Rimmer. She told us the junior lawyers she’s spoken with “are excited for the change of scenery, a face-to-face teamwork approach, support from senior lawyers and structure to their day”. Others, however, dread “micro-management” and fear progress could stall if flexible working returns to how it once was, she said.

It seems that juniors are wanting to retain a mix of office and home working. A recent poll we conducted of trainees and junior lawyers found that only a slight majority (52%) are looking forward to a return to the office. Among some of the reasons from those that aren’t looking forward to going back was that this would mean working “long hours in addition to commuting time”. On the whole, though, Legal Cheek data compiled last summer shows that the difference in working hours pre-pandemic and during are, in fact, negligible.

Magic circle firms Freshfields, Clifford Chance and Linklaters all recently gave the go-ahead for their lawyers and staff to work away from the office for up to 50% of the time. Lloyd Rees, a knowledge lawyer in Freshfields’ global transaction team and mental health advocate, told us heading back to the office can be a “morale booster” but that he’ll also be retaining the remote-working gains of the past year.

“The pandemic and working from home has provided a unique set of challenges which we’ve all had to work through. There are of course benefits to working from home and I’ll take advantage of some of them when we move into a more ‘hybrid’ way of working,” he said, adding: “I think the main morale booster of going into the office will be the opportunity to see colleagues and friends face-to-face. Those little in-office conversations are invaluable, not only from a work perspective but a wellbeing one too.”

Whatever the ‘new normal’ looks like, it’s likely the transition to a hybrid model will be more challenging than the shift to universal home-working a year ago. We’ve now experienced both: working from the office and from home but how do you manage a team or firm that’s split between the office and home in more significant numbers? Firms to do well will be those that take a thoughtful approach to where and how their lawyers can work.

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45 Comments

Sam

I’m not a Covid denier by any stretch, but I detest how the pro-lockdown brigade have refused to acknowledge any collateral damage that has been caused by shutting down so many parts of society and human life.

(69)(7)

This question merits a one word answer.

No.

(1)(1)

Kirkland NQ

My mental health will improve with the ego boost of sitting outside other ‘landers’ offices subtly thumbing through the latest Lambo brochure.

(7)(15)

Anon

With a take home pay of £90k, the brochure is the closest you are going to get to a Lambo.

(48)(1)

Kirkland Deal-Flow Wizard

No brainer for ballers like me who are worth every penny Kirks throws at us…Should be on course to net a £400k post-tax bonus this year so concerns about morale are obviously irrelevant.

Catch me dropping some loose change on a Patek Nautilus this lunch-time on Bond St. – I hear some fellow PE gurus will be paying a visit too so could be worth a getting few snaps of the City’s resident Gods 📸

(19)(12)

FlourPour

Shows you’re not a true ‘Lander. They wouldn’t be taking snaps of the PE champs, they would be stopping to chat with them and reminiscing about the latest deal crunched in 200 hours over one week.

(3)(5)

Ricky from Billericay

WFH has gotten partners used to juniors being available for work 24/7. They aren’t going to stop when people are back in the office; except where previously the work could be done in a vaguely flexible way at home, now juniors are going to have to hang around in the office till the small hours every day. It’s going to be hellish.

(47)(2)

Anonymagic

This is like the worst case scenario. I am hoping that everything will stabilise as people return to working in the office, even if not all the time. Expecting WFH flexibility/hours while working in the office would be insane. Looking back at 2020, at times it could have been physically impossible to sustain such model.

On the “upside”, it seems like the market is quieting down a bit especially on the transactional side. Maybe it’s really time to return to pre-COVID normality?

(7)(3)

Rob

I’m weening my partner away from those expectations. Being responsive just for the sake of being responsive post-7pm is something I am not doing right now. If a client genuinely needs something urgently done in the evening then that is fine, but thankfully that is the exception and not the norm in my practice area.

(23)(0)

Burnout

7pm? Where do you work? I’m genuinely curious. I’d kill for those hours.

(9)(0)

FlourPour

Pretty typical for the “nice” firms that pay £65k-80k NQ. Also typical of associates who aren’t bothered about progressing in the City and just want to take a chill in house job after a few years.

(8)(3)

Burnout

Ah I guess it depends on the department. Even the CMS/Addleshaw-type firms aren’t finishing at 7pm unless you’re working in a very chill department. Not sure how many in-house jobs are available if you qualify into those areas though.

Rob

RPC

(6)(0)

Anon

Who?

Archibald Pomp O'City

My heart bleeds.

(0)(0)

Roland

The hybrid model will not work. It is going to be messy and again the junior staff will feel the mental strain of it.

(11)(3)

Anonymouse

Most (if not all) busy teams will continue to allow a certain degree of flexibility. Don’t see this as an issue tbh. A lot of teams have their own ecosystems anyway, so the firm wide rules do not necessarily apply exactly the same.

(3)(1)

A

A poor little snowflake.

(2)(4)

Realist

It won’t work because of presenteeism. Anyone who cares about their career will maximise facetime in the office. If you aren’t consistently in the office, you won’t progress.

(13)(9)

FlourPour

I see this argument but you have to ask who they’re showing their faces to. The senior people will be happily wfh in their home offices. My old (super senior) supervisor hated the daily commute from Surrey (yah) and has loved working from home in his new taxpayer subsidised home office. I can’t see people like him showing up any more than they have to.

The canny trainees and juniors will just sync their days with the people they want to impress.

(20)(0)

Realist

I’d assume that seniors will talk to each other and have a pretty good idea about who is consistently in the office. It will almost certainly also come up in conversations if your supervisor asks you to do something and asks whether you can talk to people in the office/look over something that’s in the office.

Once you’re senior, it doesn’t really matter where you’re working from but the trainee – few PQE life is different.

(5)(3)

Woman in the corporate world

“The canny trainees and juniors will just sync their days with the people they want to impress.”

This is basically it. At the end of the day, people are going to adopt the working practices of their superiors and act in a way that they believe will impress them the most.

This perceived flexibility is simply not going to be offered to junior solicitors. We will see senior associates and partners getting some flexibility and dragging the rest of the team/department with them. That’s not real flexibility.

(14)(1)

Meh

Garbage. as someone else has said the more senior ppl will probably work from home more as they have nicer homes further from the office, long commutes and families they like to see, and probably less bothered about social aspect of working.

if you’re giving crap advice or drafting crap documents or failing to meet deadlines the fact you’ve done so at the office won’t impress a senior any more than if you’d done so at home

(8)(0)

Uh oh

“A lot of the time it feels like I’m a robot that processes and churns out tasks, day and night.”

I have some great news about returning to the office…

(20)(2)

Pardna

If you turn in the hours and are accessible work where you want. But smaller offices mean cheaper costs, so try to stay away if you can still hit hours and accessibility. Some junior lawyers upped their hours and were very accessible in the last year, some were not. The first category have a good future ahead of them. Morale only matters when it affects firm income.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

Vote up if you want to return to the office, vote down if you prefer wfh.

(69)(62)

Junior Barrister

Got a lot of sympathy for junior solicitor colleagues on this.

Likewise, at the Bar, it’s been pretty rough. None of the learning by osmosis from simply being around senior colleagues, which is absolutely crucial at the junior Bar – the result is feeling like performance is slipping and a spike in imposter syndrome. The feeling of isolation is very real and I’ve certainly felt my own mental health slipping at times.

Attending court remotely retains all of the stress of a hearing but with none of the positive adrenaline and energy that comes from being in-person. No decompression afterwards. No proper discussions with opponents. Judges increasingly disengaged and so too are counsel, frankly.

There are some things I will take from lockdown into future working practices – for example, I won’t be attending Chambers every day simply to do exactly what I would be doing at home, losing billable time on the commuter. Likewise, I am hopeful that procedural and simple hearings will remain remote – nobody wants to travel from London to Liverpool for a procedural hearing which takes the whole day in travel and destroys the prospect of billing anything else that day.

However, I will certainly look to go into Chambers at least once or twice a week when not in court, and I will certainly take the time to drop my head around the doors of colleagues’ rooms, if only for a bit of chit chat so that my partner doesn’t get boring law moans in stereo at the ‘end’ of the working day.

(32)(1)

Just wondering

But is popping on once a week worth £40k of rented space?

(0)(0)

Junior Barrister

It’s a fair point and I think many Chambers in the coming years will reconsider their positions in relation to office space.

On the one hand, when I am in Chambers, I love being in ‘legal London’ and working in a beautiful building.

On the other hand, if it dropped my contributions by 5% then I might think again.

I can certainly see those senior juniors and silks who WFH all the time pushing for a downsize. I reckon the pressure to maintain decent sized accommodation will come from the junior end and, to an extent, from staff.

(13)(1)

Yep

Long-distance pupillage is also tough, for very similar reasons.

(1)(1)

CMS 4PQE

WFH doesn’t matter when you work for an elite level firm like mine. We’re on par with the NYC players like Sullivan & Cromwell, Simpson Thacher & Weil

(6)(15)

Bantonio Banteras

Yawn, this is proper weaksauce trolling son, try harder.

2.5/10.

(19)(2)

Cheers

I went offshore at 1PQE ish, not UAE, and was earning all in with rebates and tax advantages, about 115k PAYE in London, and hours a genuine 9-6. Would often leave about 5-5.30, or show up at 10-11am, depending what I had on. Usually 9-6 with 1 hour for lunch.

Anyway I’ll leave you to it.

(11)(0)

Jealous

What area of law? And what type of firm did you train at?

(1)(0)

Cheerio

I genuinely can’t say anything much about it because the world is very small.

I can say:

i) I trained at a very good firm;
ii) it was Channel Islands;
iii) yes people said WTF, Channel Islands; but
iv) with rebates, pension, salary, tax even at 20%, moving allowance, that’s what it worked out to. I got a slightly higher base rate than average – at least 5k, but shy of 10k.

I can confirm I have also worked in the Caribbean, but cannot comment further. World is small.

(5)(0)

Old Guy

£115k is not such a massive salary. Moving for money at 1PQE is a bad idea so advice to all youngsters out there, don’t do this. Stay in Pinsent Masons Manchester for 4/5 years pqe earning £50k, get good at your job and then move. Or stay in-house at get good at that job. Or if you can move to a good City firm and get better at your job. Don’t move for money, especially not only £20k more, to work fewer hours and coast. Get good at your job, whether you want to focus on being a technical specialist at a City firm or a commercial generalist in-house.

(4)(4)

Forever Associate

This advice has not been relevant for 20 years and, quite frankly, is horribly irresponsible. The opportunity loss in your statement alone is mind boggling. Based on junior lockstep progression this person will be making £135k+ around 4/5 PQE, which is more than most City salary partners who will likely have taken a decade to get that. Suggesting giving up a 6 figure income and incredible quality of life to work 10+ hours a day as a documents monkey for a senior associate, for another 3-4 years for £50k… are you insane?

If you want a happy family life but have a lot of debts in addition to family expense, 9-6 on £115k with max 20% tax is a dream come true, and there is still likely opportunity to become an expert with that. Good work goes to good lawyers and there needs to be good lawyers everywhere, so find one and work for them.

Every junior lawyer should pursue the best opportunity for them, for the best possible benefits, based on their own hierarchy of needs. Nothing in this profession is linear anymore and any junior that is not flexible or adheres to the traditional notions of law (e.g. training, living and dying with an outfit, or thinking that training is grinding endless doc review and precedent NDAs for years on end) will be left behind.

LMAO

Good bait.

Anonymagic

Surely it’s not Singapore. From what I understand, (corporate/finance) lawyers working there often pull brutal hours, most times higher than City lawyers.

Genuinely curious if this is true and, if so, why this is the case. Presumably pay is extremely high (also given lower taxes) right?

Would moving to such a location be dangerous career-wise or not really if the exposure to transactions is this intense?

(1)(0)

Observer

It’s going to be Caribbean

(0)(0)

Walker Morris NQ

Bet I’m making more money though 💸

(3)(2)

Roger

The office is dead. London is dead. I purchased a dog and live in a little cottage out near Carlisle. I am now mortgage free and don’t need to see other humans. I have grown a cabbage and herb patch. I am still paid my London salary and due to flexible working have zero desire to go back to the office or see other humans.

(21)(3)

Dan

Such a wet comment. Go crawl into a cave while you’re at it.

(8)(2)

Get a load of this guy

Get a load of this guy

(3)(0)

Absolute chad Roger

Don’t listen to these mean comments King, you do you.

(1)(0)

Comments are closed.

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