While a recent SYLA survey found that many new lawyers felt supported during lockdown, employers need to do more regarding situations of potential risk – as do all of us in enabling career development

The Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association (SYLA) recently undertook a survey of our membership about the impact COVID-19 was having on new lawyers and their careers. We were interested to find out to what extent, and in what ways, the pandemic had affected our membership. It is testament to how important our membership considered these issues that this survey attracted a record number of responses.

The full results can be found at www.syla.co.uk

Notwithstanding the unique challenges that COVID-19 has posed for the legal profession, our survey found that a significant majority of trainees (over 56%) advised that they felt they had received adequate support and supervision from their firm during lockdown. A narrow majority of newly qualified solicitors (51%), and an overwhelming majority of both solicitors with between two and five years’ post-qualified experience (over 67%) and those with between five and 10 years’ PQE (nearly 65%) agreed. These results are certainly encouraging.

However, it would be wrong for these results to encourage a sense of complacency amongst firms, particularly when considering the fact that just over half of respondents who have had to attend court during the pandemic did so without being consulted by their employer. Furthermore, 50% of those who have been required to attend a prison during lockdown reported that they were not consulted by their employer before being required to do so. These results are concerning, and it is imperative that firms consult with their staff before asking them to undertake work which puts them at increased risk.

Another concerning aspect of our survey is that nearly 70% of students reported as feeling unsupported by their organisation during lockdown. The survey also suggests that students have been disproportionately affected in the jobs market, with nearly 10% of respondents advising that they have been unable to find a traineeship as a result of COVID-19. Our respondents also reported instances of traineeships being withdrawn, and extended, during lockdown.

It would be materially unfair if this year’s Diploma graduates paid the price of COVID-19, and there are a number of suggestions made by respondents about how to mitigate the impact COVID-19 will have on those wishing to enter the profession. These include extending the validity of the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DiPLP) from five to seven years, and a reduction in DiPLP fees to reflect the extent of remote learning this year, as well as Government funding for traineeships.

We are aware that the Law Society of Scotland has been lobbying the Scottish Legal Aid Board and Scottish Government to provide direct support for legal aid firms taking on trainees.

It appears that our membership would support this proposal and that it may alleviate some of the problems facing graduates that have been caused by the pandemic.

Whilst it is reassuring that over 70% of respondents advised that they had not been impacted by the effects of COVID-19 on the jobs market, perhaps the most extraordinary result of our survey was that over 97% had concerns about the impact that COVID-19 will have on their career development. Our membership advised that they were concerned that as a result of COVID-19, there would be fewer opportunities to develop skills (such as advocacy by personal appearance in court), few opportunities to network and build a reputation, limited supervision and feedback, and being unable to observe and listen to colleagues (our survey found that over two thirds of respondents are still working from home), as well as there being fewer job opportunities.

These results pose a challenge for both the profession and indeed SYLA. Our purpose has always been to educate, entertain and represent young lawyers in Scotland, but how we fulfil our purpose has had to adapt to the present climate. We cannot host drinks receptions to allow our members to expand their network, nor can we host face-to-face CPD events aimed at educating our membership. Instead we have launched a podcast, started sharing vacancies on our social media platforms, organised the Battle of the Trainees – an online moot which was judged by, amongst others, the Dean of Faculty – and taken steps to begin our CPD programme online.

It remains to be seen what, if any, lasting impact the pandemic will have on the legal profession. There will no doubt be debates about the merits of virtual advocacy and working from home. It is essential that the voices of young lawyers are heard during these debates, and SYLA remains as committed as ever to representing our membership – whether online or in person.

The Author

Matthew McGovern is a solicitor with McGovern Reid and a committee member of the Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association

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