Father working at home
Open office: for many junior lawyers, home working means squeezing onto a shared table with flatmates © Getty

Lawyers around the world have been forced to navigate working in lockdown, but for junior lawyers the pandemic has created particular difficulties, from delays in qualifying to cramped living conditions.

Home working has been toughest for those at the start of their careers. They need greater support, including formal and informal training, and may live with flatmates or young children.

“The main distinction is between those who have space to work and those who are living in shared accommodation [without space],” says Mike Flockhart, partner at Herbert Smith Freehills.

“The longer we are in this period of enforced working from home, the more challenging it is,” he says. “We definitely have people working on the same kitchen table as their flatmates and people having to agree which of them gets the bedroom for the conference call.”

Many point to the struggles of parents juggling childcare, but one lawyer at a top US firm says: “Many of our younger lawyers are on their own in their apartments in London and get more isolated than the ones with families.”

Law firms have responded by upgrading lawyers’ technology, in certain cases, to facilitate better home offices. But there are limits to what is possible, says one partner: “In our offices we have high-speed printers that print out 200 [pages] in a minute and we just don’t have that at home.”

For trainees and law graduates, the pressures of finding or keeping a job have been amplified by the delays to law exams. The next cohort of trainees was set to join firms in September, but the firms themselves have already been altering those plans.

Herbert Smith Freehills says it is deferring eight of its traineeships for six months after closing its international trainee programme and replacing several global seats with London ones. It is also deferring several 2021 trainees.

Lawyers wearing face masks walk down a corridor on May 26, 2020 at the courthouse in Nantes, western France, amid the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic (novel coronavirus). (Photo by Loic VENANCE / AFP) (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)
Career support: law firms have tried to offer junior colleagues remote supervision and mentoring © AFP via Getty Images

Exam providers such as BPP in the UK, which offers professional qualifications, have been forced to delay lawyers’ exams by months and run them online. BPP moved qualifying legal exams for lawyers from April to June and says it has been teaching all its courses remotely.

BPP has run 16 online LPC exams — vocational legal qualification exams —between May 4 and mid-June, involving almost 6,000 students and invigilating 1,300 students in one sitting.

Vice-chancellor Tim Stewart says BPP would have delivered approximately 250 in-person supervised exams by the end of July if the lockdown had not happened.

“Only 25 of these had to be cancelled, and these were at the beginning of the current situation,” he says.

Nevertheless, the situation is unsettling for some, on top of which prospective lawyers hoping to join law firms’ summer placement schemes have seen those programmes either cancelled or replaced with digital versions.

Lawyers point out that career development for junior colleagues tends to rely on supervision and mentoring from senior associates, which is harder when working remotely.

“We are making extensive use of [technology] but it is not the same as being in the room with someone and sharing a document together and looking at it side by side,” says one partner at a London-based firm.

To create continuity between how trainees are supported in normal times and during lockdown, Herbert Smith Freehills associates are running “pods” with their juniors, in order to create accountability and support by meeting online in small groups.

On top of the practical challenges, says Mr Flockhart, “there is also an element of empathy and human emotion” to contend with.

Case study: ‘You can’t just pop into someone’s office’

Adilah Azil
Clifford Chance, London

The second-year trainee lawyer was about to sit her final exam when the pandemic hit. She faced flying to Singapore to join her family, delays to the qualification process and working from home while in a different timezone.

“It feels like a very strange time. We initially thought we would be taking our exams in April.

“We were all told to work remotely a week before lockdown was announced. Singapore was encouraging us to fly back but it’s quite a big thing to go to HR and say you want to go and be with your family. The firm worked with BPP to ensure I could take my course and exams online so I could feel comfortable enough to head back home.

“It’s definitely harder to be supervised remotely — you can’t just pop into someone’s office with a question. I’ve been speaking to my supervisor every day instead. The London partners in my office have also connected with partners in Singapore to arrange secretarial support.

“The main difficulty is the time difference. I’m having to maintain key working hours but I’m feeling supported. It has been a very stressful time — four of my family members have been in the hospital.”

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In Part 8 of how the legal sector responds to the pandemic: lawyers ponder mix of opportunity and loss at work; next steps for FT hackathon teams working on virtual education and food waste. Plus: what the legal sector is reading on FT.com

The final part of this series will appear on August 13

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