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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.

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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.

Feeling stressed? Contact LawCare.

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