Pandemic has created new norm of “constant work” – and more errors

Howard: Most people are working until one or two in the morning

The shift to home working in the pandemic has created a “new norm” in which the “lack of boundaries” has left lawyers facing a “constant cycle of work”, a leading KC has said.

LawCare’s inaugural conference, ‘Building a better life in the law’, also heard how junior lawyers were making more mistakes due to overwork.

Anneli Howard KC said among the features of this post-Covid world were regularly working until one or two in the morning, “no respect for holidays”, a “lack of social glue” and “degeneration of personal relationships” with colleagues, solicitors and clients.

Speaking on a panel discussing drivers for culture change, Ms Howard said the initial lockdown in March 2020 “did not come as a huge shock” to the Bar, as many barristers were used to home working.

The take-up of video conferencing, which “happened overnight”, was “transformational”, as was the move from paper to digital working, continued the KC, who specialises in competition, EU and consumer law at Monckton Chambers.

The immediate problem for barristers was cash flow, as law firms clung on to funds, which meant that she did not receive her first payments until November 2020, and in other cases was not paid for over a year.

The problem now facing the profession was “lack of boundaries”. Instead of urgent work which had to be done immediately coming in at 6pm, it came at quarter to midnight.

“Most people are working until one or two in the morning, which is not sustainable. The boundaries have shifted and there is a constant cycle of work.”

Since there was “no respect for holidays”, Ms Howard said barristers created “buffer holidays”.

With everyone “atomised behind our own screens”, things were particularly hard for junior barristers. The “social glue” was missing, with no time for social chats or lunches with colleagues.

“There has been a degeneration of personal relationships, not just with colleagues, but solicitors and clients.”

Judges “never had much sympathy” for barristers with family commitments, but the backlogs at court had made the situation worse.

“A new norm has been established, which it will be very difficult to reverse.”

Paul Smith, solicitor and senior risk management consultant at leading law firm insurer Travelers, told the session that professional cultures in general were “probably getting worse”, which had consequences for indemnity insurance.

In particular, lawyers who had “too many things to do” were “losing focus on their retainers”, resulting in “a greater share of errors due to distraction”.

He said Covid had led people to reassess their careers, making it harder for law firms to recruit because people were less willing to “sit and take it”. However, there had been a recent “rebalancing” in favour of wellbeing.

Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare and chair of the session, said “one size does not fit all” when it came to emotional support, and law firms needed “a menu”. As well as apps, lawyers needed to “talk to people and make time to connect”.

Ms Rimmer said: “Where people have a trusting relationship, they are much more likely to say if something is up.”

Naeema Sajid, a former Scottish public prosecutor and law firm partner who founded the consultancy Diversity +, questioned why “person skills” were referred to as “soft skills” when they were actually “essential skills”.

Ms Rimmer replied: “People call them ‘soft skills’ because they don’t think they’re important. We should call them ‘human skills’”.

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