Building a career in a post-pandemic world—views from London International Disputes Week 2021

Building a career in a post-pandemic world—views from London International Disputes Week 2021

On Thursday 14 May 2021, London International Disputes Week 2021 (LIDW21) hosted a free session on career development in the new normal (whatever that is), as part of the core conference programme. Listeners heard insightful, practical views from a number of perspectives—in-house counsel, solicitors in law firms, barristers and academia.

The speakers were: Cherie Blair, CBE, QC (chair), Partner, Omnia Strategy; Luiz Aboim, Partner, Mayer Brown; Crina Baltag, Senior Lecturer, Stockholm University; Nadya Berova, Legal Counsel, Barrick; Charlotte Hill, Senior Associate, Penningtons Manches Cooper; Richard Hoyle, Barrister Essex Court Chambers.

 

What issues have juniors come across in the remote landscape and how is this affecting us?

 

Hill was the first to answer Blair’s question, commenting that a key thing remote working has taken away from juniors has been the opportunity to learn ‘by osmosis’. The social opportunities juniors had prior to the pandemic were essential in helping them build their network and ask questions which may be trickier to ask on Zoom.

She felt that juniors may have picked up aspects of the working from home ‘culture’ quicker than those more senior to them, such as the correct ‘Zoom etiquette’. On the flipside, juniors are likely to have lost another part of the work culture, including how the team operates and how to interact with clients, particularly those from different jurisdictions.

Hoyle told listeners that issues at the Bar have been similar, with the loss of informal interactions being one of the most noticeable aspects for juniors. He stressed that it is the responsibility of senior practitioners to ensure that people are brought properly into contact with one another.

Berova echoed that she had encountered similar issues as an in-house lawyer. She highlighted three key factors which she felt had been particularly challenging for juniors:

  • getting to know the business—as an in-house lawyer, it is essential to understand the business fully and doing so remotely is no mean feat
  • technology—when engaging with external stakeholders, it is important to remember that their technology may not be as up to date as your own. When things go wrong, it seems to her that it tends to fall to the juniors, who tend to be more tech savvy, to be the first port of call
  • Zoom fatigue—particularly when starting at a new company this is a real issue. As well as being constantly in meetings, there seems to be a greater expectation to multitask, for example by keeping on top of emails while on a call

As an academic, Baltag brought in a slightly different perspective. She felt that the main difference between her and the others was that, even before the pandemic, there had been experience with blended learning. She reiterated the loss of learning by osmosis from peers, as what the lecturer teaches ‘is only half of the process’.

 

What can seniors do to help?

 

Aboim said that, having moved across countries during his working life, he has experienced multiple times what it is like to be a junior. He felt this enabled him to pick up a few lessons on how seniors can help juniors within the organisation. He highlighted the importance of:

  • communication—as a senior, you need to learn not to communicate more with the juniors, but to communicate rightly
  • wellbeing, both mental and physical—organising non work-related activities can be helpful, both to bring the team closer together and to increase individuals’ wellbeing
  • culture—juniors may not intuitively understand a team’s culture so seniors must make an effort to integrate team members

Hill felt that as a senior associate she is in a unique position, bridging the gap between a junior and senior role. She felt that working online has helped increase accessibility, as it is now easier to bring juniors into meetings—all you need to do is send a link.

In conversations with juniors, she has heard concerns that seniors will forget that they are there. In a remote environment, seniors must try harder to keep up personal relationships, checking in with their juniors.

Hill also highlighted the importance of communication, stressing that seniors must ensure what is expected of juniors. For example, a trainee may think an email at 11 pm from a partner is urgent, when in reality, the partner has just sent it due to prior non work-related commitments.

 

What can juniors do to work on developing their career in such an environment?

 

Berova and Baltag both highlighted the benefits of being able to attend a greater number of conferences and seminars than had been previously possible. It is now easier to access these and to interact with the speakers.

Berova spoke of the importance of having a clear path of what you, as a junior, want to achieve, which should include taking care of your personal health and wellbeing.

Baltag felt that the pandemic had enabled people to deviate from their paths, taking the time to learn new skills. The pandemic has enabled people to be in two places at one, meaning keen juniors can continue with their career while earning a degree at a prestigious university.

Although she recognised the importance of having a plan, she advised juniors to remain flexible with it because, as we have seen, things can change rapidly and unexpectedly.

Blair commented that it is one thing to say that academic learning is important but questioned whether legal organisations will accept juniors taking time off to expand their minds.

On this point, Aboim responded stressing the importance of business planning and of understanding where you fit in the business puzzle. Having a plan allows you to work towards your own priorities rather than other people’s, saying no to things when necessary.

 

So, what is the new normal? Have courts and tribunals changed for good?

 

Hoyle spoke of three themes, which the pandemic has brought even more into centre stage:

  • international competitiveness of English courts—the courts of England and Wales have remained open for business during the coronavirus crisis, transitioning seamlessly to online hearings. The judiciary should ensure the ‘flexibility and nimbleness’ seen in this phase is kept, in order for the courts of England and Wales to remain a jurisdiction of choice for international commercial disputes
  • diversity—the pandemic has provided better opportunities for a wide range of people, such as working parents. Also, remote hearings have enabled a wider variety of people to attend hearings, such as those who previously did not have the time or means to travel to London
  • environment—arbitrators and judges are becoming increasingly more attentive to the environmental impact of hearings. A practical example of this is the Green Pledge, which is seeking to raise awareness of the carbon footprint of hearings. As branches of the state, Hoyle feels that it is now up to courts to do their bit to meet the UK government’s environmental goals

Aboim further commented on the cost effectiveness of online hearings. DR, and certainly arbitration is a service and therefore must be cost effective to clients if it is to maintain a competitive edge.

 

Work-life balance—are law firms really going to turn into ‘family friendly’ companies?

 

Hill felt that the intention is there, but it is a challenging process. Law firms must learn to trust their employees—logging off at 4 pm does not necessarily mean that someone is slacking, they may just prefer to work at alternative times. She felt that it is important for juniors to be able to speak up to get the work life balance they need.

Berova thought that flexible working is the way forward. In her experience, when people are working from home or even when visiting loved ones abroad, they are just as diligent, if not more so, than when working away from the office location as they do not want to let down the trust their organisation has given them.

Blair wrapped up the discussion. She felt that the pandemic has shown us that we can do things differently. Considerations of an environmental nature, financial efficiency and personal life will remain in people’s minds when considering whether work should be done at home or in chambers, firms, tribunals or elsewhere.

Note: this is a summary of the discussion and does not purport to be a full account of the event.

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About the author:
Gloria is a Paralegal in the Lexis®PSL Paralegal Hub. She graduated in International Law and Globalisation from the University of Birmingham in 2019 and has been at LexisNexis UK since March 2020. She has experience working for US, UK and Italian law firms on a range of matters, including IP, financial services and immigration law.