Spring is here. Shops, restaurants and pubs are reopening their doors and bringing a wave of optimism about the future. With the continued success of the vaccine rollout, conversations about returning to the office are bubbling. As these conversations develop into action plans, it is timely to take stock of the past year to see what we have learnt from working from home (WFH).
Junior lawyers will look back on what has been a challenging but transformative year. In particular, trainee solicitors, apprentices, and newly qualified lawyers faced a challenging year in the formative part of their careers. Zoom calls can replace meetings, but they struggle to replicate the benefits of learning by osmosis. Likewise, law firms can alleviate stressful days at work with virtual coffee breaks and events, but they are no substitution for the camaraderie of the office. To restore some balance, many junior lawyers welcome a hybrid return to the office.
A hybrid model can alleviate some of the troubles of the past year. For example, two days in the office can be filled with important client meetings and catch-up coffees, providing those in-person interactions for growth and camaraderie. However, it is hasty to assume a hybrid model is a perfect fix. After all, junior lawyers are just as likely to need support or guidance WFH as they are in the office. Additionally, feelings of isolation can still linger if the junior lawyer’s housing situation does not accommodate the WFH lifestyle.
Without addressing these problems of WFH head-on, junior lawyers may not feel the full benefits of WFH. If the office becomes the only place where juniors can find training and culture, then the freedom, autonomy, and greater work-life balance of WFH are lost as trainees spend the whole week in the office.
Looking forward, we must not assume the office will fix all the cracks WFH has shown. Two days in the office cannot gloss over the reality that everyone will spend more time from home in this new age of working. Supervisors can find ways to strike a fair balance. Among other things, managers and training principals can:
- Assess which meetings can be done online or in-person and invite the junior lawyer to one or both depending on what they could learn
- Maintain strong communication lines when one or both is WFH to avoid saving up questions for days they overlap in the office
- Have a strong supervision schedule that encourages a mixture of online and in-person learning.
Let’s ensure that the benefits of new ways of working stay. Junior lawyers that have learnt through the pandemic have developed a new level of self-sufficiency, bringing emotional intelligence, resilience, resourcefulness, and a knack for remote communication to the table. Equally, many welcome the new levels of freedom it brings. Such advantages can remain, but law firms that adopt a hybrid model must continue their efforts to develop the online office to successfully equip the future of the profession.
Callum Reed is an executive committee member at the Junior Lawyers Division and a knowledge assistant at RPC