Training in turbulent times

The Law Gazette - Adam Hattersley

2 November 2020

Solicitors who have been through the process will know that a training contract is stimulating and stressful in equal measure. As the profession navigates its way through the global pandemic, has there ever been a harder time to be a trainee?

Learning by osmosis

With government guidelines imposing restrictions on people attending the office, the profession has quickly adapted to working from home. While everyone has had to acclimatise to the changes, trainees face unique problems which are often felt more intensely due to their position within the firm.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority has said that training contracts can proceed remotely, provided trainees are receiving ‘appropriate supervision’. For most trainees this will mean their work is signed off by an appropriate supervisor, but are trainees missing out on being in an office?

Many former trainees will testify to the invaluable knowledge that was acquired by ‘osmosis’. The theory being that surrounded by legal discussion and debate within a team will mean you pick up the knowledge without specifically acting on the matter.

Working remotely deprives a trainee of being submerged in such an environment. Being isolated at home significantly limits the amount of material they may be exposed to.

New presenteeism
As well as the impact on a trainee’s ability to develop technically, the pandemic is also affecting mental health and work-life balance. In particular, presenteeism has always been an issue for those on a training contract: a feeling of competing with your peers and the need to be seen as working late, always being willing to take on work to assist the team and being constantly available. This pressure has only intensified during the recent measures, with trainees not being physically visible to their team and at the same time worrying about job security.

Trainees feel an increased sense of needing to be seen or recognised as being valuable to their organisation, resulting in working longer hours or at antisocial times, and at weekends. The fact that trainees have unfettered access to work on their kitchen table, twinned with concerns about job security, has meant a vast increase in presenteeism. This will likely have a detrimental effect on a trainee’s work-life balance as well as mental health, as they struggle to switch off or distance themselves from their work.

Virtual culture
With seat rotations every six months, trainees are likely to have found themselves in a new seat at some point during this year, entering a new team for the first time and meeting a fresh set of colleagues. Meeting new people for the first time can be stressful and difficult, even more so when not meeting face to face. Most trainees will face the prospect of working the next six months with a team they may not ever actually meet in person.

There are, of course, substitutes for meeting in person, such as video calls and telephone meetings, but trainees are concerned that these types of encounter will not create as deep or as meaningful connections, without the ability to socialise or meet outside the office. This is leaving many nervous as to whether they are a good fit within their team. It is hard to ascertain what the culture of a team is when you have not had the opportunity to spend time together. Only speaking sparingly or on large group calls can create anxieties among junior lawyers about whether they have made enough of an impression to be noticed or, more importantly, retained come the end of their training.

New guidance
Firms, as well as satisfying regulatory obligations, need to be alive to the issues trainees face as they proceed through training contracts during these challenging times. Firms must be aware of presenteeism and work closely with trainee principals to devise strategies to alleviate these additional stresses placed on trainees. This can be either through monitoring the amount of time a trainee is online and working, reiterating the firm’s wellbeing programmes or simply more senior colleagues leading by example. As remote training becomes more prominent, a framework which protects junior lawyers needs to be established to prevent a generation being deeply affected by its unintended effects.

While we all face the ongoing difficulties associated with Covid-19, special attention needs to be afforded to people starting their careers. Training contracts have always been challenging for junior lawyers but current world events are adding an additional layer of pressure. It is a pivotal time for firms and the profession as a whole to ensure that not only are we aware of these new issues, but we actively seek to alleviate them.

Adam Hattersley is a member of the Junior Lawyers Division executive committee and a real estate finance solicitor at Fieldfisher

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