Listening to trainee voices: COVID-19 concerns
Over the last few weeks I have been holding several round table events with present and future trainees, many on furlough, to answer questions, hear their concerns and offer support.
Adapting to working from home or other new practices is touching everyone in the legal profession, but at the outset of their careers and working under supervision, some impacts are felt particularly strongly by trainees.
Below I have laid out three common concerns that have been raised and offer a context to why they are relevant to so many trainees, and what employers could do to help.
It’s clear that regardless of how far through training they are, many trainees are feeling vulnerable in terms of job security. The two-year training period is, in the end, a fixed term contract. The end of that contract is usually a source of excitement for trainees who are ready to move into qualified roles. However, in a turbulent and possibly suppressed jobs market, trainees are viewing their qualification date with increasing trepidation.
Withheld or rescinded NQ job offers could leave people at risk of unemployment, leaving some trainees worrying about the immediate financial strain that would pose, or the potential impacts on future progression. Many trainees are concerned their qualification dates may be extended. Others, particularly those on furlough, are concerned they’re at greater risk of redundancy and finding themselves midway through a traineeship needing to find another role. In a busy marketplace, they worry about being overlooked as candidates who now have a CV that looks more complicated to a prospective employer.
How can employers help?
Communicating with current, future and furloughed trainees is the critical part that employers need to make sure they’re getting right. Particularly when thinking about trainee concerns around redundancy or unemployment, there are a lot of Chinese whispers out there, and transparency helps slow down the rumour mill.
While it might be counterintuitive, the more employers can keep colleagues updated with information the better. People aren’t going to assume everything must be fine if they don’t hear from colleagues and leadership; likely, they’ll fill the information void with worries and concerns.
Concerns about employability are shared by many current and future trainees. For those on furlough, missing seats and losing valuable experience is a key concern. For future trainees, most internship opportunities have dried up, alongside many other employment opportunities. There is a concern among students that they’ll become an overlooked cohort, with the usual experience missing from their CV, or grades that are not a fair reflection of what they might have achieved in normal circumstances.
Some people may read this and think that so many concerns about career prospects among students or trainees are unwarranted. After all, careers are long and there’s plenty of time to forge a path. This may be true, but trainee recruitment is stressful in normal circumstances. Students spend years jumping through a matrix of hoops including extracurricular activities, high grades, volunteering, legal experience and full and part time jobs to get a coveted role in a competitive market. The uncertainty caused by coronavirus adds to an already big challenge.
How can employers help?
For a long time to come, coronavirus will be evidenced on CVs and applications. Where people can’t secure the legal work they want, we’re encouraging students, trainees and NQs to be proactive and take opportunities to stay in employment, gain transferable skills to complement technical legal skills, volunteer, undertake relevant CPD and keep a close eye on securing a future role. In turn, employers should be more open to non-linear career paths, contract work, or people looking to transition into different areas of law. Perhaps this is a great opportunity for recruitment to become a bit more flexible and see people given breathing space to try out different things in their early careers.
A lot of trainees have talked about the challenges of supervision from a distance, with so many working from home. Many are finding it particularly hard to ask questions they need to, or get feedback or access to work in the first place. A trainee described how they had completed a draft of a document and submitted it to their supervisor, which was then edited and submitted by someone else with no feedback to the trainee. The trainee independently went into the work file store to track down the final version and compare it to their draft to find out what had been changed. This isn’t a good example of proactive supervision.
It’s arguably easier for more seasoned trainees who are more confident completing tasks, with their supervisor simply checking and approving their work. Trainees who had just moved to a new seat at the start of lockdown have also spoken of finding it difficult to access work or communicate with colleagues, without an established rapport and comfortable relationships with a new team.
How can employers help?
Small, simple changes around communication can make a big impact, whether that’s scheduling regular calls or establishing a clear system for trainees getting access to work and receiving feedback. Employers need to look at how supervision works at a distance as more than a short term issue. With speculation about how social distancing might remain for many months to come, trainees could end up doing a significant portion of their traineeship working from home. If employers haven’t already, they need to think seriously about how they are maintaining supervision, starting from ensuring trainees have access to the hardware they need to do their jobs, to receiving detailed feedback on meeting the PEAT2 outcomes.
The legal profession is having to wait and see how the landscape will have shifted in the next few months due to coronavirus, and while some actions could be taken now, others will come much further down the track.
At the Law Society of Scotland, we will continue to engage with trainees to capture and answer as many questions as possible, then work proactively to continue to give career support, deliver relevant events, assist supervisors and training managers and enable trainees’ voices to be heard. The legal profession is extremely collegiate; hopefully all employers know this is the time for compassionate leadership and an empathetic approach.
Eildh Conacher, first year (second seat) trainee at a large full-service firm
I’m a first year trainee, at the time of writing in my sixth week of furlough. When the UK went into lockdown, I had been in my second seat for just two weeks.
In the run-up to lockdown, my firm was brilliant at communicating our changing processes and how this would affect individuals as we adapted to working from home. I’m not sure anything could have truly prepared any of us for this time.
The most difficult part of this experience has been the uncertainty and powerlessness I have felt. I’ve always had some semblance of control over my legal career: planning and executing coursework, attending law fairs and networking events. This pandemic has, however, taken my agency away. I’ve struggled with the uncertainty the COVID-19 crisis has created for my career. I was eager to begin my traineeship, having waited almost two years since securing my position. When I was first placed on furlough, I was certain it would mean extending my traineeship. I now understand this may not be the case (though it remains a possibility).
My time on furlough has been spent looking over old university notes, scouring the internet for free online CPD and reading through my supervisor’s STEP notes (kindly lent to me). I constantly worry that I’m not doing enough to keep my legal knowledge up to standard and that my learning has been compromised; after all, there is no substitute for the practical education the traineeship offers. I have tried to maintain a routine. This has included a daily workout, trying new recipes, and reading books that have been on the shelf for longer than I care to admit. For me, exercise and routine have proven the most effective ways to reduce the anxiety I feel.
Since being on furlough, I’ve been well supported by my team and I continue to feel like a valued member of the firm. I have been in touch via weekly videoconferencing meetings and the HR team have reached out to ensure all trainees are OK. My firm has focused on my wellbeing above all else in this difficult time.
Dionne Brady, second year trainee
I am currently a second year trainee, due to qualify at the beginning of August.
I haven’t had any advice from my employer as to how I should spend my time; however, they have reassured me they are doing everything they can to ensure I will complete my traineeship, and there is also a good chance of being kept on as a NQ solicitor, which are the two main issues I was really concerned about when I was furloughed on 30 March.
I am a very active person, and while it was difficult getting into a different routine at the beginning, I feel like I’m doing even better fitness-wise than I did in my old routine. I find that exercise and getting out and about as much as I am allowed really help my mental health. I’ve been staying in touch with friends and family and helping them in any way I can. I also did a fundraiser for a domestic abuse charity called Refuge, raising over £270 by doing 100 squats a day for 30 days. This gave me something to focus on and took my mind off the fact I’m not working at the moment.
Although I have some level of certainty that I will be offered a job in August, I have tried to be proactive in updating my CV to reflect the work I have done as a trainee. I connected with a legal recruiter and participated in a video call along with other trainees in the same boat. Although it was hard to take at first, as we discussed the possibility of there being hardly any NQ jobs this year, I felt better knowing that I am doing what I can to prepare for that scenario. There is no better time to do it since I have so much time on my hands!
Another concern is that I’ve missed out on many weeks of training and court appearances that I am always learning from. I worry that I’m going to be terrible at my job if and when I do return, and will have forgotten everything! Although that sounds a bit far fetched, I’ve never been out of work so it’s a strange feeling.
I guess I just have to carry on, think positively and prepare as much as I can for the future. I do find that talking to people helps if I am feeling low, whether that be friends, family, other trainees I know or reaching out to people on LinkedIn.