• Sardonic Solicitor

Work-life balance in the age of remote working

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Video conferencing

I had a catch-up Zoom call with my team today. It is strange to think that before March 2020, I had never heard of, let alone used Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, GoToMeeting or any of the plethora of video conferencing platforms that seem to have sprung up out of nowhere. Although oddly, never Skype. What is that all about Skype? You had a 17-year head start on everyone else and are nowhere to be seen? They have taken a backseat to the more holistic team communication platforms like Microsoft Teams.

Now, these video conferencing apps are a staple part of daily life. Whilst that can feel overwhelming at times, they are generally perceived as beneficial. They have revolutionised conference calls and cut through some of the confusion when discussing complex or esoteric points. Now you can share your screen and discuss a document or presentation to convey your message more clearly. At the beginning of lockdown, everyone had their cameras on and were keen to show that they were hard at work. As lockdown dragged on, more and more people switched off their cameras. They probably joined meetings as I have on occasion, still in their pyjamas or my favourite hybrid, a smart polo top and scruffy jogging bottoms. Who said lawyers don’t know how to dress?

I digress. Back to the call, I had this morning with my team. We spoke about current workloads and team management issues. We discussed some of the challenges faced by the juniors in our team. It cannot be easy for them during the COVID pandemic, our team is working remotely across a couple of countries and different time zones. With the best will in the world is it not always possible to give the same level of supervision. At present, we tend to work in smaller teams, so when new work comes in we need to get all hands-on deck.

Often the best way to learn on the job is to observe and learn from the people around you. Back when we all had cellular offices (rather than the dreaded open-plan set-up) a junior lawyer could learn a lot from the partner or senior lawyer with whom they shared an office. They could hear how they took calls, problem solved and dealt with clients. When we started our careers, we learnt a lot from studying senior lawyers around us. Although I was a bit of an exception to the rule, as the partner I sat with spent more time on the golf course and in the pub than he did in the office. #Legend.

Safe pair of hands

Truth be told when you are under pressure to get stuff done, it is hard when you cannot rely on a safe pair of hands. When I was coming up through the ranks, to be a "safe pair of hands" was the ultimate compliment. That is so very English; I love it! Americans would say someone is "awesome" or did a "good job". Nothing of the sort in my firm. The English are the masters of understatement. As an affirmation of competence, someone is a "safe pair of hands" in that they will not f*ck stuff up. They are a reliable, hardworking, and sensible part of the team.

But we were all young and clueless when we started. I remember how utterly bewildering it was leafing through the Chambers & Partners guide to the top 100 law firms. It provided a two to a four-page overview of each firm. It also gave an outline of the main practice areas of each firm and the features of their training contracts. In England, once you have finished your law degree or your law conversion course, you take a legal practice course. You can then apply for a training contract with a law firm, in return the law firm usually pays for your law school tuition and provides you with a modest stipend. Then the training contract consists of a two-year apprenticeship where you would normally take several rotations in different departments.

As a university student, the whole process can seem very daunting. I will be honest, as a student, it is bloody hard to distinguish one firm from another. They all seemed to say pretty much the same stuff, do the same stuff and generally paid their trainees’ similar salaries. Well, apart from the US firms who paid crazy bucks. But even as a student, I had heard horror stories about the work culture of the US firms; working late nights and weekends. I remember thinking that they were not for me, thank you very much. I will go for a mid-market firm that talked about "#WorkLifeBalance".

The myth of "work-life balance"

Sorry I cannot go on without diving further into that last term; "work-life balance". Wow...if ever there was an oxymoron for lawyers it is that you can have a so-called "work-life balance". Now, with the benefit of nearly a twenty-year career behind me; I can safely say that work-life-balance in law is a misnomer. Even in mid-market so-called ‘cosy’ firms, you still end up working your backside off, late evenings, weekends and holidays. With the benefit of hindsight, part of me thinks, you might as well bite the bullet, work those crazy hours for a US firm for a couple of years, when you are young, and cry (not laugh) all the way to the bank. I mean you will never have any time to spend your money, but you might as well earn a shedload while you can.

Although, from the experience of some of my close friends at US law firms it is not just the long hours that you must endure. To be frank, you have to put up with a lot of dickish behaviour as well. We have all worked with unreasonable colleagues. But some of the best stories I have heard tend to involve US firms. Coincidence? I will let you be the judge.

When I was a trainee, a friend of mine (also a trainee) was working at a US law firm. Whilst on secondment to the Middle East, a few of us were out for dinner one evening. We had just finished the meal and a couple of bottles of wine. My friend gets a call from his supervising partner: “We need you to come into the office, now”. This would have been well after 11 pm. What urgent work did he have to do? He had to let the partner and an associate back into the office and sort out some printing. I don’t know about you, but I certainly dreamt of doing such high-flying tasks when I went to law school. Impressive.

That mate of mine was an unlucky sod. On another occasion, a senior associate came into his office and asked him if he had any plans for the evening. My mate mentioned that he was planning to go out with some friends. The senior associate paused and said: “not anymore!”. He then dropped a stack of papers on the desk. “This needs to be reviewed now. Our advice needs to go out tonight.” Whilst objectively funny, it is still a scumbag move of epic proportions.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Generally, all lawyers will acknowledge that, part and parcel of working as a service provider, you are going to have to bend over backwards to accommodate your client’s needs. However, it is possible to manage expectations and set some boundaries; certainly, in a non-transactional setting where you are providing pure commercial advice. You can usually find a happy medium that works for both parties. The problem in our profession is that many don’t even try to have that conversation. They simply take the client’s word as gospel and make their lives and the lives of their teams miserable.

“Work-life balance” in this ever-connected, always-on, go, go, go age is as elusive as a desert mirage. Somewhere off in the distance but never attainable. I do not think it can truly be reached. But there are some easy wins that you can look to implement.

  • When you are not in the middle of a transaction, do you need to check your work emails multiple times in an evening or on the weekend? Walk away from the work smartphone. I try to leave mine in a drawer, so I am not drawn by the notification’s icon (or the red flashing light on your Blackberry, back in the day, remember them?).

  • Do not drop everything you are doing when a client calls. You can call them back on your own time and when it is more convenient.

  • Book some time off and try to disconnect from work. I know that sounds all well and good as some firms expect you to respond to emails and take client calls when you are on leave. I get it, I do. The same often happens to me. It is a necessary evil, but you can mitigate the disruptive damage by carving out a window to dip into your emails at a time of your choosing. If you are going to check-in whilst on leave, do not do it more than once a day. Often your team can step in and pick up the slack if you have that conversation and set the boundaries.

To the non-lawyer, even my suggested compromises can sound ludicrous. We are not all expected to check in with our work emails when on holiday. This is not normal behaviour in all walks of life. I am just old enough to remember when you left the office on holiday, pre-Blackberry and remote login facilities, you were free. Apart from potential phone calls, you were not expected to keep up with your emails. That was less than 20 years ago. Think about that for a moment. That is a seismic shift in work culture in less than a generation.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. We all must do what works for us. But at least we should continue to strive for that mythical hinterland of “work-life balance”.

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