How Has The Pandemic Impacted Aspiring Lawyers and Barristers?

With students working remotely and employment rates down, we explore how COVID-19 has affected legal students.

The global pandemic has not only seen the legal sector reluctantly opening its arms to remote, flexible working and embracing technology, but it has also seen law students having to swap in person moot exams to zoom meetings. We have spoken about how COVID-19 has impacted the legal sector and how it has pushed court hearings online, but we are yet to explore how it has hit aspiring, new lawyers. Where will this pandemic leave them?  How easy is it practising and learning to be an attorney or barrister during these testing times?

Last month, the Junior Law Division of the Law Society (JLD) in the UK sent an open letter to the BPP University Law School raising concerns on the teaching standards during the lockdown period. The letter listed particular examples on how teaching standards had not been up to par, such as: increased class sizes but a reduced quality of teaching; dissociated learning caused by the inconsistent allocation of tutors; students being unable to receive or collect hardcopy of books prior to examinations and no mention or guarantee of resit dates for exams. The JLD remained understanding, by mentioning how the pandemic has caused “unprecedented challenges and difficulties for everyone”, but they claim that students at other LPC providers have faced similar problems which “have been amicably dealt with”, such as keeping the same class tutors throughout remote learning and having books being posted to them. The BPP responded[1], when speaking to the Legal Cheek, stating: “We take official complaints raised by students extremely seriously. We cannot comment on individual cases, but all complaints go through a robust, credible and independent procedure of review to ensure a satisfactory conclusion is reached[2].”

 Although the proportion of judges that are women continues to increase gradually, women remain under-represented in judicial roles in 2020

Taking online learning seriously is something many universities have managed to successfully implement, but evidently, from the JLD’s letter, not all have managed to do so. This will have lasting implications for the next generation of lawyers and of course, we are yet to discover the impact of students studying online, as on a personal level, it will vary far and in between. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds, for example, may struggle to get an internet connection to attend online seminars or struggle to pay for books now that libraries are temporarily closed.

Inequality in the legal learning space

The disparity in the legal sector is one that is constantly spoken about and is even more apt after the Ministry of Justice’s Diversity of the Judiciary released their 2020 statistics. The report read: “Although the proportion of judges that are women continues to increase gradually, women remain under-represented in judicial roles in 2020. This is particularly the case in the courts where 32% of all judges, and 26% of those in more senior roles (High Court and above) were women – compared with 47% of all judges in tribunals. The proportion of judges who identify as Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) has also increased in recent years, but remains lower for court appointments compared to tribunals, particularly at senior levels (4% for High Court and above, compared with 8% of all court and 12% of all tribunal judges). However, the association between age and ethnicity – with lower a proportion of BAME individuals at older ages, and more senior judges being older on average – should be borne in mind.”

It could quite be that perhaps an active effort needs to be made, to ensure the legal sector remains on track on maintaining a diverse range of lawyers and barristers for the upcoming generation.

So, unsurprisingly, more needs to be done. Responding to this, Amanda Pinto QC, Chair of the Bar Council, said: “It’s helpful to see the legal profession’s diversity statistics alongside those of the judiciary. The Bar Council along with all members of the Judicial Diversity Forum (JDF) have more to do independently of each other to improve the judiciary’s performance in terms of inclusivity: the judiciary in continuing to attract lawyers of all backgrounds and in supporting movement within and up their ranks; the JAC in looking at the disparities between applications, especially from candidates from ethnic minority groups, and those actually being shortlisted and appointed; and the professions in supporting the retention of diverse and talented lawyers to reach the levels of experience required to be a judge.”

But how easy will it be to retain diverse lawyers if the pandemic is shifting the dynamic? A few months ago, we spoke to Ed Vickers QC, who mentioned that the reality for many practitioners and some chambers is that real financial hardship will deepen; being self-employed, with little financial help available, some may not survive. He told Lawyer Monthly, “With depressing inevitability, such hardship is bound to affect more adversely law students, pupils and junior tenants coming from non-traditional backgrounds, and the drive to widen equality and diversity in the profession – and ultimately the judiciary – will be set back.”

Despite the legal profession still holding gender diversity issues across the industry, and the pandemic making it easier to resist change, a gender disparity report conducted by employment law firm Richard Nelson LLP found an increase of 37.93% in female undergraduate applications for law courses from 2011 to 2020[3]. It could quite be that perhaps an active effort needs to be made, to ensure the legal sector remains on track on maintaining a diverse range of lawyers and barristers for the upcoming generation.

Furthermore, over a third (35%) are feeling less positive about their career since lockdown commenced in March.

Are there enough jobs for our new lawyers?

Moving from the impact COVID may have on equality in legal schools, and thus future workspace, remote learning works for many and can be just as effective as in-person learning to some extent (which we address next month); but, we are yet to learn the full impact COVID will have on the next generation of lawyers. Nonetheless, reports have slowly been coming in.

According to research from Hays, only 13% of employers in the legal sector are currently recruiting graduates, trainees or apprentices. Of the 360 legal professionals surveyed, three in five (59%) of those in Generation Z (born after 1995) describe their career prospects as average or poor, higher than the average for this generation (46%). Furthermore, over a third (35%) are feeling less positive about their career since lockdown commenced in March.

In a recent LinkedIn Influencer blog, Alistair Cox, CEO of Hays, commented on this, saying: “This is a call to arms to all the leaders out there. The needs of your current employees are of course important right now, I’m not questioning that. But we mustn’t lose sight of our youth. They need our guidance more than ever now. They are the future and we must do what we can to ensure that the future is as bright as possible.”

Yvonne Smyth, Director of Hays Legal, also warned of the consequences of not hiring new entrants to the workplace. “Looking back to previous recessions, we know that reduced hiring of young talent leads to severe skills gaps, seniority disparities, impeded industry progression and issues with productivity.

“Focussing on hiring young talent remains crucial in order to secure the talent your organisation needs now and avoid significantly minimising your talent pool or cutting off your future supply of talent ready for when the economy improves.” According to Yvonne, employers need to focus on the following to support young legal professionals with the onset of their careers and maintain their firm’s talent pipeline.

It is predicted that the biggest impact will be on pupillages that are in areas of law most affected by court closures, especially criminal and family.

The impact on pupillages

Furthering on from this, earlier this month The Bar Standards Board (BSB) published a report[4] on the impact that COVID-19 is having on pupillages. The report found that, while chambers and other organisations have shown a commendable commitment to sustaining pupillages in difficult circumstances, there is likely to be some pressure on the supply of pupillages available from 2020 to 2022.

The report, based on engagement between April and September 2020 with 157 out of the 260 chambers and other organisations that are authorised to provide pupillage, showed that all pupillages that had already started when lockdown began in March have been able to proceed, with many pupillage providers overcoming considerable challenges. Although, the vast majority of chambers and other organisations have said that they remain committed to offering pupillage – (only one chambers has said that it has decided to permanently reduce the number of pupillages they intend to offer). It is expected that there is likely to be an impact on the number of future pupillages available between 2020 to 2022 as the knock-on effects of the health emergency will affect future pupillage recruitment decisions.

It seems as the bad news extends from lawyers to aspiring barristers, with pupillages being competitive enough as it is, it may be negatively impacted due to the pandemic.

It is predicted that the biggest impact will be on pupillages that are in areas of law most affected by court closures, especially criminal and family. In a press release, The BSB stated that they are “conscious that barristers with protected characteristics are more strongly represented in these publicly funded areas of practice and will carefully monitor the effect of COVID-19 on pupillage and any implications for diversity at the Bar”.

The BSB has strongly urged chambers and other organisations to support pupillages as much as they can, and has already issued a waiver enabling those who are due to begin pupillage in Autumn 2020 to do so even if they have not yet been confirmed as having passed their Bar Professional Training Course or Bar Transfer Test, subject to their pupillage provider being content. To date, 44 organisations have either confirmed in writing, or have verbally indicated, that they will use the waiver meaning that a total of at least 60 pupillages can start as planned either this month or in October.

BSB Director of Regulatory Operations, Oliver Hanmer, commented on this report, saying, “While we are pleased that chambers and other organisations demonstrated a laudable commitment to sustaining pupillages, we are very conscious that many face continued financial pressure due to the consequences of the health emergency. We are doing our best to encourage and facilitate chambers to support as many pupillages as possible”.

When factoring in that over 60% of legal staff want to work from home post-lockdown, we will likely see a reduction in training being conducted face-to-face.

It seems as the bad news extends from lawyers to aspiring barristers, with pupillages being competitive enough as it is, it may be negatively impacted due to the pandemic.

Do new graduates have any hope in making it?

Not all is dire and glum, however. Speaking to the Legal Cheek[5], ULaw pro-vice chancellor Peter Crisp, said students should remain patient and flexible, emphasising the importance of using the free time to virtually volunteer or work pro bono. Getting to grips with online meetings and technologically based communication will put students in good stead, something which they most likely have come to grasps with a lot quicker than the older generation.

For those actively searching for a legal role post graduating, how will hiring new recruits during remote working differ? Speaking to Guy Phillips, VP International Business at NetDocuments, he advises us that with remote working now being a pre-requisite for any new recruits, they will expect to be provided with the correct tools and technologies that will allow them to do their job effectively and seamlessly. Those firms that don’t, run the risk of being viewed as ‘technology laggards’, which will make it more difficult for them to hire fresh new faces.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, law graduates and trainee lawyers were increasingly expectant of hybrid working arrangements and this will likely continue in the future. One thing is clear, hiring new recruits during this remote-working era has widened the available talent pool as being ‘office-based’ is no longer an essential requirement. Law firms now have the opportunity to hire the best people irrespective of location”, says Guy.

Firms now have a responsibility towards modernising their mindsets and rise to the challenge in changing the way they train, nurture and progress their staff remotely

A positive for the newly qualified lawyer! But moving from remote learning to remote working and potentially shift back to the office, what should new lawyers be expecting, that may differ from their teaching practices? With remote working practices in place as a result of COVID-19, it is essential that firms do not hinder the development and learning of trainee lawyers due to a lack of appropriate technology.

“When factoring in that over 60% of legal staff want to work from home post-lockdown, we will likely see a reduction in training being conducted face-to-face. The lack of in-person interaction is not typical of the legal industry which conventionally relies on practical experience as a key tool for developing trainees. Firms should look to implement remote working technology that mimics a traditional office-based setup, providing the tools to communicate and collaborate effectively. Firms now have a responsibility towards modernising their mindsets and rise to the challenge in changing the way they train, nurture and progress their staff remotely”, shares Guy.

The full impact of the pandemic on aspiring lawyers and barristers is yet to be seen. Only time will tell, however, if firms take an active approach towards embracing technology and learning to be more flexible when reacting to the current, given circumstances, we can hope that newly qualified lawyers will slot in perfectly with their new role. The next generation will have a lot to offer, and what a way to begin their legal career: amidst a global pandemic!

What can firms be doing for newly qualified lawyers, as explained by Yvonne Smyth, Director of Hays Legal

1. Training and upskilling

The education and training of young people have been hugely disrupted as a result of the pandemic. However, they remain enthusiastic about learning and are receptive to new ideas, so investing in their training and upskilling will ensure that they are equipped with the skills needed to feed the talent pipeline of your firm and of the legal profession.

Make sure your training offering can be accessed virtually, tailored to the current and future skills gaps your organisation is experiencing and doesn’t overlook the development of soft skills. Offering wellbeing support is also something to consider, as many junior professionals will be experiencing feelings of anxiety about their careers, which is taking its toll on their mental health.

2. Offering work experience

Stay committed to providing roots and access to entry-level opportunities such as vacation schemes, school leaver opportunities, apprenticeships and training contracts to give budding lawyers vital experience and unlock your organisation’s access to immediate basic skills. The pivot to online learning has largely taken place so consider redesigning the programmes you have in place so that they can be undertaken remotely.

3. Providing career support

Employers have the power to share practical, realistic career advice which is relevant to working in their firm and the legal profession. Community outreach programmes, employer open days, virtual office tours, mentoring programmes and sharing insights on social media are all ways in which you can share this insight and provide career support. This will support junior legal professionals to make a more informed and confident entry into the world of work, thereby providing you with a more competent entry-level talent pool.

[1]

[2] https://www.legalcheek.com/2020/08/jld-writes-to-bpp-over-lpc-lockdown-complaints/

[3] https://www.richardnelsonllp.co.uk/university-applications-which-university-course-holds-the-largest-gender-disparity-in-2020/.

[4] The BSB’s full report on the impact of Covid-19 on pupillage is available here: https://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/uploads/assets/01e902f7-2c7a-4086-a4f0b568ea593489/e506269c-cb25-4c6e-9cf33ea0bd2fd7f1/BSB-report-on-the-impact-of-Covid19-on-pupillage-Sept2020.pdf.

[5] https://www.legalcheek.com/lc-careers-posts/how-covid-19-will-impact-law-students/

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