It’s an industry that has tradition, formality and heritage at its core which, until the Covid-19 pandemic, was widely accepted and rarely challenged.
However, the various lockdowns and rules on social distancing during the last 12 months has meant the legal sector has had to rapidly adapt to new ways of working in order to meet the demands of both clients and courts, as well as ensuring that staff are continuing to develop their skills.
And, it is the latter that holds the key to help move our industry forward and champion innovation. As someone who had a slightly unconventional route into law (I completed the Period of Recognised Training rather than a traditional Training Contract), I have seen how obstacles at the outset of your career truly shape your future path.
For instance, I experienced first-hand the various biases that are in place at some of the country’s most well-respected law firms, prompting me to launch my own ‘People Before Profits’ law firm. While profits are of course important to run a successful business, it is the people who are at the heart of our business model – this is something I wouldn’t have been so passionate about had I not come up against the various challenges in my early career.
For our fledgling lawyers of today, the challenges to come out of the last year are likely to govern how they navigate their careers.
Take CEL Solicitors. We have always been proud to go against the grain when it comes to culture and challenging the norm in the legal sector. Whether it’s the way we’ve chosen to fit out our office (we have two ‘think swings’, three bars and an amphitheatre!) or our commitment to reward dedication and talent with roles that would be traditionally seen as ‘too senior’ for some individuals, we’re not afraid to buck the trends.
However, the pandemic means an entire cohort of fresh talent has had a somewhat unusual start to their career, while those climbing the rungs on the ladder have also had to adapt how they work.
So, has the pandemic affected career development and what can we do to ensure our next generation of lawyers are as good as they can possibly be?
It sounds simple – and obvious – but, communication between colleagues and with senior management has never been more important.
At the start of the first lockdown, we reworked our induction policy so that it was more suited to remote working. We’ve recruited around 30 new staff in the last year alone, so they have all had a very different start to their journeys with us.
We would usually have new starters spend time with every section of the business, from finance right through to marketing, regardless of their job title or ranking, so that they get a 360-view of how we work.
We also assign everyone with a ‘buddy’ when they join us – this is just so they have someone who sits near to them and whom they can ask questions, be shown how to work various systems and generally have someone on hand to help.
It was really important that we kept these things in place when we began working from home, so we made sure that all buddies were introduced on Zoom and that they were fully integrated into their team with regular catch-ups.
While we’ve always had WhatsApp groups for different teams, these really came into their own over the last 12 months. Not only were they used to communicate results for clients and as a way to get a quick answer on something, but they’ve also allowed everyone to maintain our close-knit community feel.
Whether it’s a word of encouragement to spur someone on to get a great result or a virtual celebration once a case is settled, everyone has a made a real effort, especially when it comes to welcoming new team members.
We also invested in a brand new camera and sound system for our amphitheatre so that our Friday afternoon team meetings could still take place and be properly viewed by those joining from home. These sessions are a key part of our culture and allows everyone to hone their public speaking skills and share successes from the week.
As we move into a post-pandemic world, we are going to be relying more heavily on technology and digital communication. This has been needed for some time and it’s where our new generation will shine.
While the older, more experienced legal professionals have had to spend time adapting to video calls and virtual hearings, those who are just entering the industry have had these skills from the beginning.
From a senior management perspective, we have ensured that staff mental health is at the heart of our ethos. Prior to the pandemic, I held monthly one-to-one meetings with every single staff member to check in on their wellbeing and how they were both at work and in their personal lives.
It was really important that these check-ins continued as we moved through the last year and it has given me the opportunity to get to know the team much better – plus meet a few pets, children and spouses on the other end of Zoom along the way!
The way lawyers deal with clients – whatever the discipline – has also adapted and, in my opinion, for the better. As a claimant law firm, it is inherent in our culture that we show compassion and demonstrate empathy for our clients, some of whom are extremely distressed and upset.
Being able to show emotional intelligence when dealing with a case will not only set you in good stead for how you climb the career ladder and potentially build a team of your own, but will also create a strong rapport with clients and nurture trust.
While the pandemic could be viewed as temporarily pausing career progression, it’s important that senior managers continue to encourage and celebrate how staff are going the extra mile to secure success.
We have seen this right across our team. In particular, our very first trainee to qualify as a solicitor was promoted while still completing his Training Contract. Joshua Murphy joined us as a paralegal and, due to his sheer passion and hard work, was promoted last year to Head of the Repairs Team. He now manages his own team and has fully qualified…against the backdrop of the pandemic.
Of course, this sort of progression may not always be feasible, but it’s vital that staff are aware of their options to succeed and know how to carve out a career with your firm.
As we all look forward to getting back to normal post-lockdown, I firmly believe that our industry, in particular, should not be in so much of a rush to return to the norm and we should very much embrace how we have adapted and shifted our attitudes for the future.