Working from home - A novel start to a training contract
Clad in jeans, a jumper, and slippers I made the 15 second commute to my dining room table, my new office for the foreseeable future. Working from home (wfh) was not the introduction to working life I’d expected but day one of my training contract happened to be the day the UK went into lockdown and the past few months have marked a novel start for me! Three months down and I’m settling into a rhythm of wfh. Some readers will have shared in this strange experience of beginning (or adjusting to) a job during lockdown, others will be preparing to embark on virtual vacation schemes and may be wondering what to expect. Here are a few thoughts so far…
Pre-lockdown, weekdays began with a test of endurance – being squashed against the armpit of a sweaty middle-aged commuter as people crammed like sardines into tube carriages, avoiding eye contact and pretending not to read over fellow commuters’ shoulders. Very occasionally someone may speak to you. More often, the only noise in the carriage is from the embarrassed I-thought-my-Bluetooth-earphones-were-connected passenger from whom an obscenely loud YouTube video has blared out, attracting the attention of all, or occasionally some not-yet-Londonified passenger who hasn’t realised their indecency in failing to use earphones to catch up on their favourite sitcom, much to the annoyance of those around them. At its most extreme, the soundtrack to my commute has been the dear tfl workers pleading over the intercom “Please move down in the carriages – this would be a whole lot easier if you were all just nicer to one another!”
Since lockdown, my mornings are filled with reading, walking, talking to friends/family, listening to podcasts, occasional exercise and generally enjoying a more leisurely start to my day. Overall, this is welcome and when spelled out you’d think me a fool for admitting that there’s something I quite like about my 45-minute commute to the City. I like the people-watching. I like emerging from underground into the hustle and bustle of life. I like the somewhat cathartic nature of a commute – having a separation of work and home which goes beyond the walk from my bed to my “desk.” The reality (and I imagine I’m not alone) is that I often waste the extra time I gain from my reduced commute and this is a bad lockdown habit I am keen to push back on. I’m generally a morning person (and can’t bear to start work in PJs!) so early starts and getting up aren’t a problem. Motivating myself to get out of bed or out of the flat for a walk can be more challenging. I feel so much better if I head out for a walk, do some exercise or build something specific into that morning period – the news over coffee, a call with a friend over breakfast, a chapter of my book… I'm learning that more time is useful but only if I actually put it to good use! Making the most of mornings and evenings to put myself in the right mindset for the day and relax before/after/as a break from work is a really valuable opportunity I'm keen to enjoy before the return to typical commuting.
Within the team
Lots of law firms have retained the layout of two-to-an-office, with a more senior person (i.e. the principal) at the back, and a more junior person (i.e. me) in front of them. It’s not the same at all firms, and different levels of seniorities will experience different set-ups, but for trainees, you usually have a single principal with whom you share space, time and work. I had geared myself up for this experience. I was ready for morning small talk, for a close professional relationship of seeing someone daily, listening to their calls, watching how they conducted themselves when giving and being given feedback, hearing their advice and advice given to them, listening to drip-fed experience and insight over a period of six months whilst we shared an office.
With the wider team, “corridor walks” featured both on my vacation scheme and in training as recommended ways to get to know the team and pick up work. Meeting someone face-to-face for a quick introduction is a great way to familiarise yourself with a team, get to know people and make a good impression. Offices will likely have some social activities: group quizzes, drinks trolleys, informal trips to the pub after work, the market for lunch or a coffee shop for a break. Note that soft drinks are always available so if you’re only an occasional drinker like me, or tee-total, please don’t be put off by drinking references.
Needless to say, none of this has been exactly as expected. I’m fortunate to have met my principal, mentor and secretary in person – three people I’m in close contact with and would have got to know whilst in the office. For three months, I’ve spoken to my principal most weekdays and we've communicated (I think) every single work day in some form. We’ve managed to get to know one another and found ways to replicate some of the osmosis-like learning of the office environment. There are still some misunderstandings – written messages (especially those on instant massager) and even spoken comments without facial expressions, body language and knowing someone can easily be misconstrued and give rise to inaccurate impressions – but generally law firms are well-equipped to provide a variety of mediums to communicate with people and that’s been hugely beneficial in my first few months settling into a new job and team.
If you’re on a virtual vacation scheme, work out which mediums of communication are open to you and if possible, which options people prefer – some may like a call, others an instant message, others an email. Each of these forums serves a slightly different purpose, used in their proper place (not something I claim to have mastered perfectly myself) they make for powerful communication tools.
Starting working life comes with a barrage of emails! Knowing when to respond, what to prioritise, which medium to use to communicate your response, how and to whom and when to ask questions, or alternatively how much to investigate yourself before asking a question are all decisions you have to make as emails are hitting your inbox fairly rapidly. This is not particularly different to life in the office but a very different experience to the relatively independent style of working as a student.
Expectations for the day ahead
I don’t work a 9-5 job, not that many people do when you ask them. There are no “set” hours to my day. There are reasonable expectations of when it is ok to log on and log off but lots depends on busyness. I might begin a day and have two things in my diary and an idea of my to-do list for the day; by lunchtime there may have been a significant change on a matter which has either come alive or is slowing down. I may have been added to a new project. I may have been given some work from someone as a result of a client query or something novel which has come up in someone more senior’s analysis which they’d like me to research. Throughout the day it can be hard to gauge whether I’ll log off at 18:30 or the early hours of the morning – work ebbs and flows and whilst progress can generally follow a pattern, my routine changes day-to-day.
Why the late nights? Lots of friends and family can’t quite comprehend that 18:30 is an early finish for me and that later in the evening would be a more “normal” time to finish work. Working hours will vary across different practice areas are there are lots of reasons why corporate lawyers work long hours, here are a few:
Urgency – corporate deals can be fast-moving and work to tight deadlines.
Competitive tension – some deals are competitive, like auctions (just think of your favourite trashy auction TV programme – it’s a similar basic concept only bidding is for investment opportunities). The quicker documents are “turned” (i.e. reviewed and amended according to clients’ interests), the better the impression a bidder can present. Alternatively, there may just be a few parties interested in buying an investment, or a client wants to work quickly to avoid anyone else becoming interested and possibly snatching away their investment opportunity!
Mitigating risk – clients who are buyers have an added incentive to sort documents quickly: to reduce risk. Once a deal is agreed, the clock starts ticking. A buyer has agreed to buy a business, corporation, fund or financial product etc and wants to make sure money doesn’t escape from their investment. There are of course contractual provisions that can be put in place to reduce risk and change how and when payment for the purchase is calculated and made. To make this tangible, think of buying a car. You wouldn’t want to then leave that car in the garage for 6 months – it would likely fall in value, something might happen to it and you would get no benefit from it. Reducing the time until you can get behind the wheel settles some of these concerns.
Meeting deadlines – contracts often have triggers so that once an event happens, a cascade of dominos begins whereby other events start having to happen within set deadlines.
Costs – in theory, the quicker something is done, the less it should cost. Basic logic which may or may not hold true but which can fuel urgency.
Cooperation - Work needs to be done quickly and passed on to the next person in the chain so that they have time for their review. Corporates, bankers and other parties will often be involved on deals, as well as a host of practice areas within a law firm. Depending on where you sit in that chain of participants depends on when you work (e.g. if several parties do their work and pass it on to you at 18:00, your work on that matter starts at 18:00)
Time zones – international work brings with it the novelty of time zone considerations. Some work can only be done when team members from across the world are online and some work needs to be done so that teams can pick it up as soon as they log on.
Note that this is partly my own individual experience. Not all firms and practice areas operate like this. I’m currently sitting in private equity in an international corporate firm meaning time zones, multiple deals and fast-moving matters are all a reality. This will not always be the case across different areas of the profession so if you prefer predictability, regularity in your routine and earlier finishes, other types of law might be for you.
Most students don’t yet know about the joys of time recording. Lawyers do. Most law firms still bill based on time spent on client work, though this isn’t always the case. To do this, firms break days up into small segments of time (e.g. 4, 6, or 8 minutes etc.) and a lawyer records how they spend their time throughout the working day, which will be divided into the segments when the firm reviews the time recording. This doesn’t mean that every 4 or 6 minutes you have to record your time, but it does mean that at the end of every day you will complete a thorough review of the way you spent your time and input it into a programme – what time was spent on which matters, or in training, or on calls, networking with the team, researching for matters, firm insight or commercial awareness...? This is now part of my routine but when I speak to friends or students I’m reminded how strange this seems. As above, this hasn’t changed with wfh but has been an important part of each day for the past three months.
Last but by no means least, our good old friend, screen fatigue. Life has (in many ways inevitably) largely been consigned to a screen for the past three months. Work calls, training, research, emails, social calls, family calls, bingo, hen parties (yep – I’ve done a virtual hen party and have another in the diary), church, bible studies, coffee catch-ups, breakfasts with friends… these are all real things I’ve done during lockdown. With the exception of calls (work and social) which can be plugged into earphones whilst I walk, each of these activities has meant sitting at a screen, usually for at least an hour with all of the feedback, lag, lack-of-personal-connection and accidental talking over one another videocalls so often bring. There has been so much joy in video calls, touching base with people and keeping some elements of routine, but I have found it hard. I was ready to have to be disciplined when keeping to some important personal commitments, accepting these might not always be possible with work, but that I would try to go where I could, even when it was tiring. That reality has been harder than I imagined and some things have admittedly slipped in an effort to spend some time away from screens.
Learn what works for you (e.g. my mornings/early afternoons are generally more flexible so I try to schedule contact with friends before work if possible and with friends/colleagues in the morning/early afternoon if possible)
Try and have some commitments you stick to
Be kind to yourself and accept that some commitments might get parked for now
Three months doesn’t feel very long and the reality that I only have three months left in my current seat before I move feels strange and slightly sad. Wfh is a feasible option for most law firms, though I am excited to see what office life is like and meet colleagues in 3D! For now, wfh remains the norm but it will be interesting to see how lockdown impacts legal practice in future with regard to remote working, flexible working and virtual resources as firms will begin to mesh together the benefits of wfh alongside office-based working, from both workers’ and a business perspective.