Get the balance right

8th Nov 2021

Beverley Robinson reports that when it comes to training during the time of COVID-19, there’s no ready-made formula.

Fortunately, the legal sector in the UK has remained fairly stable throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although some areas of law have suffered more than others, the IP industry continues to benefit from constantly developing business and innovation.

Nevertheless, even for IP, there have been significant changes to working practices. Firms have had to adapt quickly and efficiently to the new working environment.

In particular, trainees and junior members within the industry have faced specific challenges. So, how have the firms and individuals in our professional community responded?

Routes to qualification 

Although the main routes to qualification for trade mark attorneys have not changed, methods of teaching and assessment have had to adapt (and quickly) over the past 18 months or so. 

Vishal Dattani, a Trainee Trade Mark Attorney at Appleyard Lees IP LLP, attended the Queen Mary University of London course this year, in what we can all agree have been exceptionally challenging circumstances.

“I have had to manage working online both in the office and while studying,” he explains, adding that “the teaching at Queen Mary has had to change to a combination of ‘live’ (online) and recorded lectures due to the pandemic.

"Adapting to a new style of teaching was a tricky obstacle and one which places more of an onus on the individual.”

Lizzie Sergeant, a Trainee Trade Mark Attorney at CMS, is just coming up to the end of her training, having attended the Nottingham Trent University course this year.

In her view, the Nottingham course has been well conducted given the unusual circumstances, with opportunities to collaborate and undertake group activities.

However, it hasn’t provided the same learning experience as in previous years, she feels, mostly due to the lack of separation between work and the course, and the amount of screen time involved.  

Having completed the Queen Mary course in 2019/20, Nicole Marshall, a Trainee Trade Mark Attorney at Appleyard Lees IP LLP, experienced taking exams in both the traditional circumstances of an exam hall and online at home.

“While at-home exams can create a less-pressurised environment and so levels of stress and anxiety surrounding the exam may be reduced, it was not all positive,” she says.

“Revising for and taking my exams from home, without personal interaction with course friends and colleagues, was a much lonelier experience.

"Much of the preparation was done alone, and I had to celebrate the end of my exams and the course alone too, which is something that had a much greater mental impact than I realised it would do.

"The lack of social interaction during revision and afterwards was definitely something that I had to overcome.”

For many, an important part of attending the training courses is getting to meet and build relationships with individuals at the same level.

"With in-person classes being replaced with online learning, the opportunity to build these career-lasting relationships is lost.

“Meeting your peers online is an option, but I don’t think it’s a replacement for forming those relationships in person,” says Vishal. 

I can sympathise. I’m still in touch with many of the people I trained with, and I know from my own experience that the relationships you build while training provide a vital support network throughout your career.

After I qualified, I attended a series of seminars and talks specifically aimed at newly qualified trade mark attorneys (PQE 1-2 years), and perhaps similar types of events in the future will help the recent cohort of trainees to build these important relationships.

Gaining practical experience

One of the biggest challenges that firms have faced is making sure that the benefits of shared knowledge and collaborative working that come from being together in an office is not lost.

The value of overhearing conversations, observing colleagues and learning by osmosis from those around us should not be underestimated.

This type of learning forms a big part of development for all levels of attorneys but is particularly important for trainees and more junior members of a team who are reliant on this type of training to gain the practical experience required to move forward.

For this reason, firms are keen for trainees and more junior members of the team to migrate back to the office. “The last 18 months have shown that being in the office and interacting with qualified colleagues is key to elevating a candidate from simply qualifying as an attorney, to becoming a trusted commercial adviser,” says Jennifer Good, a Trade Mark Director at HGF.

“It’s the ‘soft skills’ that are learnt through seeing how others deal with clients that help to give trainees the confidence to know how to tackle queries that may come their way.”

Sam Turton is a Trainee Trade Mark Attorney at Appleyard Lees IP LLP and has experienced this first-hand. “It has been somewhat a challenge to be in a trainee role and working from home.

"It would have been ideal to train in the office alongside other more experienced attorneys in order to better understand how the law is put into practice and how we make information accessible for the client.

"At the office, there are always other people around to ask the smaller, routine questions that are easier to deal with in person rather than via email.”

“There definitely isn’t the same exposure to the day-to-day, ad-hoc conversations or opportunities, which in turn generate feedback and identify other areas for development,” says Lizzie Sergeant.

“The opportunities are still there, but there is a greater need to put yourself forward for things and communicate more actively, which is often more challenging for trainees.” 

Nonetheless, even though almost half of Lizzie’s training has been based on remote learning and despite the ongoing challenges, she has had a really positive experience of training.

It has shown her that there is room for a range of different training formats and that remote training can provide some really valuable opportunities.

“Since the pandemic, I have found that there is a much greater emphasis on checking in on colleagues, which has allowed me to grow my internal network, both with colleagues in the UK and internationally, and ultimately provided me with more insight on various matters.

"Generally, having to undertake my training remotely has encouraged me to be more proactive, independent and resourceful.”

Mentoring relationships

Firms have introduced measures to try and replicate the benefits of office working, but there is no doubt that the training/mentoring dynamic has changed.

“Even where trainees were part of a close-knit team before the pandemic hit, they are less likely to call or email a colleague or line manager to check that they are heading in the right direction than they would have been to ask a quick question in the office,” notes Jennifer.

“This has led to tasks inadvertently being completed incorrectly, which takes up extra time for both the trainee and the line manager.”

The pandemic does certainly seem to have made people think more about the trainee and mentor relationship, and the importance of maintaining channels of communication between junior and more senior members of a team.

“Mentors have had to adapt a more proactive approach, and this in turn sets an example to the junior team members,” says Lizzie. “Having benefited from regular check-ins and workload reviews, I try to do the same with other members of the team and any new joiners.” 

“I think the onus has shifted and there is now even more responsibility on trainees to make an effort to speak to their mentor and seek opportunities,” says Vishal.

“It’s important to put yourself forward for things and ask to participate in meetings and calls so you still get to experience more senior fee-earners in practice.

Then, actively seeking feedback is also important to make sure you are getting the most out of that training.”

Souped-up support

Most firms have introduced additional support for trainees. This might mean, for example, a dedicated training principal in addition to the partner/mentor overseeing the training, or open Zoom sessions to ensure that trainees and more junior members of the team have a strong support network in place. 

“We now have daily drop-in sessions each morning, which allow all fee-earners to sit in to discuss any issues or queries they may have or just to have a catch-up generally,” says Vishal.

“This has provided a forum where I’m able to share and discuss any queries I may have, and I can listen to others and learn from different experiences, approaches and thought processes.

These sessions have also allowed me to collaborate cross-office and speak to members of the firm and work on matters that I may not have previously had the opportunity to get involved with.”  

A common theme in my discussions with colleagues and peers is that remote working has resulted in a breakdown of barriers between people who wouldn’t normally have had the opportunity to work together, particularly in cross-office environments.

Nicole Marshall has found that circumstances have presented an opportunity for her to work with a broader range of colleagues, allowing her to benefit from a broader range of experience. 

“Working and training from home has definitely increased the collaboration of the trade mark team across the firm,” she says. “As a trainee in Manchester, when we were working from the office, if I had a query I would usually go to senior staff from within the same office.

"I would have little contact with the trade mark teams in Leeds, Halifax and Cambridge. However, now that we are working from home and most queries are made via email or instant messenger, it is a lot easier to discuss matters with colleagues across the other offices.

"This has allowed me to receive training from multiple people and learn from their experiences.”

Social Interaction

The loss of social interaction during the pandemic has affected most people, regardless of position or level of qualification.

Feeling isolated is detrimental to wellbeing and mental health, and firms recognise that this is key to nurturing a happy and productive workforce. 

For many, building and maintaining these important relationships comes more naturally in an office environment.

“While we’ve seen some line managers put in additional effort to remain in contact with trainees during the pandemic – both on work-related matters and for more social interaction – this can sometimes be a bit forced or awkward, particularly if there is nothing specific to discuss.

"In the office, colleagues are much more likely to just say ‘Hello’ and have a quick catch-up without much in particular to say, or to pick up on signs that might suggest that a trainee is worried or anxious.

"It is therefore much easier to look after each other and notice issues swiftly when we are in the office together,” explains Jennifer.

If anything, Lizzie believes that the circumstances over the past 18 months have resulted in people taking more of an interest in others’ wellbeing.

“I have regular scheduled meetings with supervisors to talk through work matters, and separate meetings scheduled to have general chats, so we still have that personal interaction.

"I wouldn’t say the support is better or worse in comparison with pre-COVID times, but there is probably a more conscious effort from both sides (trainee and supervisor) to maintain a good relationship, which is no bad thing.”

With more emphasis on online events, there has generally been more opportunities for trainees and more junior team members to attend events.

"“During the pandemic, networking has changed drastically to adapt to the restraints created by lockdowns and restrictions,” says Sam. “In my experience, networking opportunities have still been plentiful, albeit mostly through the medium of Zoom.

"In many ways, this adapted form of networking is beneficial to trainees, given that everyone gets the same amount of time to speak and there is no way for people to retreat into cliques.”

Vishal has also found that this has presented opportunities that might not otherwise have been there. “I have been fortunate to be given the opportunity to sit in on meetings between the Anti-Counterfeit Group and the legal teams who work in-house for multinational worldwide companies, or stakeholders such as the UK and US border forces, which might not have been possible had the meetings all been in person.”

Looking forward

As we navigate our way out of the pandemic, most firms have seen a gradual return to some office working over the past couple of months, with both employers and employees keen to regain some of that social interaction and collaborative working.

However, it is clear to see that the pandemic is going to have a long-term effect on the industry and the way we work.

“I think that working partly from home as an option is viable and that recent circumstances have shown that it can be done if properly supported,” says Vishal. “Having said this, I think that seeing your mentor in person is critical to development.

"Going forward, I think a balance of two or three days in the office and two or three days at home per week would work well.”

In a similar vein, Lizzie feels that adapting with the times and benefiting from a mix of both home working and office working is a good way forward.

“The pandemic has provided an opportunity for training methods to be re-evaluated, and if there is scope for various forms of training, then I think that’s good.

"I don’t think remote working should entirely replace office-based working, as there are benefits to both, and in a world where agile working is becoming more and more normal, it’s good to instil the skills associated with that at all levels.”

Historically, the legal industry has had a bad reputation for long working hours and a poor work/life balance, and most firms were starting to look at introducing some elements of agile working before the pandemic.

However, the pandemic accelerated this trend and illustrated vividly the benefits of hybrid working arrangements.

Although most firms recognise that there is a definite benefit to retaining some office time, most are now introducing hybrid arrangements allowing greater flexibility and a much-improved work/home balance.

The key seems to be getting the balance right and ensuring that support networks are still in place, particularly for trainees and more junior members of the team.   

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