Pandemic jeopardises young lawyers’ wellbeing and learning opportunities

Joanne HarrisMonday 15 March 2021

For many junior associates at law firms, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant a working life of flat-sharing and working from bedrooms, living alone, or relocating back to their parents’ homes.

In the United Kingdom, charity LawCare, which provides support and education to the profession on mental health, said it saw a nine per cent rise in the number of legal professionals seeking its help in 2020 compared to 2019.

LawCare said 34 per cent of calls from March 2020 onwards had a Covid element, with lawyers raising concerns about mental health, working from home issues, isolation and being overloaded with work.

‘It’s easy to hide online. It can be easier to fly under the radar if something’s not going well’, says LawCare Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Rimmer. ‘It’s hard to admit that you’re finding something difficult, or that you’re struggling, or that you’ve made a mistake.’

You learn so much in your early years from being around and observing the sort of things that your colleagues are doing

Elizabeth Rimmer
Chief Executive Officer, LawCare

Manda Banerji, Chair of the Law Society of England and Wales’ Junior Lawyers Division, said the group’s research before the pandemic had already indicated high levels of stress among junior lawyers, with stress levels rising between 2017 and 2019.

‘As such any added stress during the pandemic is extremely concerning’, Banerji adds.

Banerji says it’s harder for junior lawyers to manage a work-life balance and raise issues when working from home.

‘There have also been concerns raised about virtual presenteeism where the boundaries between home and work life have become blurred, resulting in many junior lawyers feeling obliged to work longer hours or more unsociable hours than when they were in the office’, Banerji says.

Marie Brasseur, Co-Chair of the IBA Young Lawyers Committee and a partner at Belgian firm Altius, says her firm’s associates had admitted to increasing fatigue while working from home.

‘There were some of them begging to come to the office’, Brasseur adds. ‘It’s even more difficult now to impose on yourself some limitations. To be honest, I don’t know how to manage that or how to help them.’

The IBA’s Legal Policy & Research Unit (LPRU) ran a Young Lawyers’ Survey in mid-2020, gathering over 3,000 responses from lawyers aged 40 and under worldwide. The full results of the survey are due to be released later in 2021.

The survey found 24 per cent of respondents had experienced a changed working environment due to Covid-19; 22 per cent had seen workloads increase and 18 per cent had had a decreased workload. In-house lawyers were significantly more likely to experience workload increase, with 33 per cent of in-house counsel reporting more work compared to 17 per cent in private practice.

A separate IBA project with input from the LPRU addressing the mental wellbeing of legal professionals found 35 to 40-year-olds were most likely to highlight working practices as the lesson the industry needs to learn from the pandemic, with younger lawyers more likely to mention workload.

Meanwhile, 25 to 29-year-olds reported a higher prevalence of some of the key factors that tend to contribute the most to low wellbeing, including lack of workload control, task neglect, lack of feedback, lack of clarity on objectives and unclear expectations.

And yet, there could be a brighter side to the pandemic. Marco Monaco Sorge, Co-Chair of the IBA Young Lawyers Committee and of counsel at Tonucci & Partners in Italy, says the Committee’s perception is that many firms around the world chose to retain lawyers and reduce salaries, rather than make redundancies, at the height of the pandemic.

‘It’s important to understand that law firms are investing in the future generation in this pandemic’, Monaco Sorge says.

He also thinks that working from home has prompted junior lawyers to become more responsible, active and productive.

‘This could be a good opportunity to be more independent and to [develop more expertise] in different areas of law’, he adds, noting that those in areas of practice more adversely affected by workflows during the pandemic have had to adapt to work in other areas.

Brasseur highlights that the shift to flexible, remote working has been easier for younger lawyers than many of their more senior colleagues and says that for her firm at least, there has been more communication through virtual means than ever before.

The impact on professional development remains a concern, however.

Rimmer says that while there are lots of benefits to working from home in terms of flexibility, ‘the downside of it is we miss our colleagues. You learn so much in your early years from being around and observing the sort of things that your colleagues are doing.’

Banerji agrees this is a worry – that learning through observation and osmosis has been lost to the pandemic. But she says the added flexibility of working from home could be a positive from the crisis.

‘Remote working has also been beneficial for junior lawyers with certain disabilities and those with caring responsibilities which is a positive step towards increasing diversity and accessibility to the profession’, Banerji says.

Respondents to the IBA surveys are convinced working patterns have changed for good, and firms that want to thrive will have to grapple with the challenges of nurturing and developing their younger lawyers in this new environment.