The influence on the legal sector due to Covid-19 has been vast and catastrophic. For many firms, this has taken the form of lost business, adapting to a remote working style and balancing the retention of the workforce itself. But for law students and juniors, whose voices are often reduced to a mere echo on LinkedIn, this crisis has had a toppling effect on the availability of work experience, training contracts or pupillages, and jobs.
An increased anxiety and panic has likely been afflicting many students as they emerge from the LLB, GDL or Master’s education onto a suddenly uncertain career path. The diminished likelihood of securing any form of legal experience, whether this be a vacation scheme or paralegal position, has surfaced as a continuous source of concerned discussion.
Many of those who bravely submitted applications for training contracts at the beginning of the year have received “radio silence” from recruiters, a less than inspiring reaction in an already competitive environment. In fact, many graduates of the conversion to law have admitted that this sense of uncertainty has resulted in a lessened willingness or eagerness to embark upon further study to qualification.
Courses such as the LPC or BPTC may see a significant decline in applicants if training contracts or pupillages are not realistically attainable in the near future. The usual employment promise, “Get a job in nine months or your fees back” that course-providers make may need some amendment. This could mean that students who defer will be required to undertake new forms of study and assessment, as the introduction of the SQE is being implemented by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) from as early as September 2021. In addition, the potential impact on diversity and inclusion initiatives and standards could also be sent to the 'back burner' whilst adjustments and crucial decisions are made.
To avoid an unfortunate and potentially damaging strain on the progress that has been made to improve representation of BAME and LGBTQ applicants in recent years, organisations will need to find ways to ensure that positive and essential changes to the recruitment process are carried through the crisis.
At the next level up, trainees are hanging on by the skin of their fingertips to contracts
with law firms up and down the country who are struggling to meet commitments to an ever
escalating crowd of budding lawyers.
For many junior and newly qualified solicitors, job security is at grave risk with no guarantee that their position will still be there next month. And for our friends in wigs, the summer of 2020 has been somewhat of a let-down. Practical opportunities to observe the justice system in action have dramatically reduced in availability.
After months of being assessed and interviewed online, students and junior candidates are struggling to get to grips with a starkly different and unsettled way of operating in the legal sector, before they’ve even got their foot in the door.
But, legal technologists say, there is hope. Organisations such as Legal Cheek, Inside Sherpa and Bright Network are partnering up with major city and regional law firms to bring virtual internships to our desktops. Names such as Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy and Slaughter & May have headlined so far, with more to impress on the horizon. This has been positively reinforced by a host of Legal Cheek, (and Legal Geek, for all those interested in legal tech) networking and panel events open to all students and lawyers on an international scale.
Law Careers Net has announced that its traditional annual event “Law Careers Net Live” will now be taking place online, a key occasion at which to secure a place in order to communicate and merge contacts with peers and partners alike. Finally, the Junior Lawyers Division are hosting a range of online events in the coming months to ease junior lawyers back into term-time, or perhaps even the return to the office.
This will include, (but is not limited to) a talk with the Vice President of the Law Society, and a webinar focussed on Paralegalling. Check with your local county JLD at the website juniorlawyersdivision.co.uk or on LinkedIn for more information on events near you.
So, what do junior lawyers think of these digital adaptations? For barristers, virtual mini-pupillages are, “evidently not the same”, one GDL graduate comments. "You simply cannot beat practical, real-life experience that allows the student to immerse themselves in such a unique environment", he says. This emphasises the sense of detachment that can result from purely relying on experience of an uploaded version of, for example, a trial or hearing.
Aspiring solicitors are similarly caught up in a whirlwind of virtual internships and are also questioning whether these replacements will be acceptable and suitable for their CV and future applications.
The shared worry is that, whilst virtual events allow increased awareness and access, this may decrease the value of said event. Pre-pandemic, the select few who would originally be accepted onto these experiences stood out from the crowd. This desirable quality may become progressively difficult to achieve in a digital crowd of thousands. Students and junior lawyers must now, moving forward, develop a new set of skills. In future interviews, candidates will likely be asked how they spent their time during lockdown.
The innovative applicant will demonstrate adaptability, whether this be through improving personal qualities, learning a new language, or simply using their initiative to manage and perhaps even benefit from this stressful and restrictive situation. Whilst things may seem bleak and limited in the present, those who master their time wisely will reap the benefits in the long term, seeing this extra time as an opportunity rather than a wasted year to forget.
Olivia Atkinson Regional Representative for the Junior Lawyers Division BB&O Committee.