The unbearable lightness of being remote

Barrister Rehna Azim discusses our need for human connection in a time of increased remote working for many people.

Person on video call with colleagues
Editorial credit: Yalcin Sonat/Shutterstock.com

At the start of 2020, a ‘Zoom social’ might have been the name of a new coffee, sold at the hip cafe that just opened near your workplace.

Now, in a Covid-19 world, it’s the attempt by law firms and Chambers to recreate online the monthly office drinks that some of them set up when they started to recognise finally that staff wellbeing could be a potential revenue-boosting benefit. Relaxed, emotionally healthy people tend to perform better at work. It’s not rocket science.

One of the ways to create a healthy workplace is to promote social contact between colleagues. As that great philosopher Barbra Streisand once sang, people need people.

Remote hearings have been plentiful during lockdown, but they offer little opportunity for meaningful interaction. The reality is, that for many lawyers, quarantine has brought a sense of being cut off from colleagues. So, after the initial excitement of being able to bake banana bread between your morning hearing and afternoon conference, the need to reconnect with colleagues has started to appear on many a to-do list.

The need for human connection

Whether it’s afternoon tea, evening drinks or dinner, the aim is the same. It’s a rare chance for frazzled lawyers to relax with colleagues they haven’t seen, maybe for months, share war stories from court and put faces to the names of the ever-changing junior staff.

While trudging back to the office/Chambers for a get together (prior to lockdown restrictions) was sometimes a chore, especially after a long day at court, Zoom socials are a click away. You can sit in the comfort of your own living room, with a wine you like, and chat to people who do the same work as you and understand its triumphs and pitfalls.

It may not be ideal, but what’s the alternative – months of isolation from the only people who fully understand what you do?

Recently, on a Zoom social, barrister Sharan Bhachu mentioned she had been to court that day. Not a ‘virtual’ court, but a real, physical court room with living, breathing people. The rest of us asked for details of her adventure as eagerly as if she had just returned from a trip to Narnia.

After the expected questions about hand sanitisers and the state of the toilets, we asked the big one – how did it feel to be back?

“Really good,” Sharan beamed. “It was lovely to sit with a client again talking through the case, being able to offer comfort when needed. And just meeting friends again, chatting after the hearing, having a laugh. I didn’t know how much I’d missed it until I was able to do it again.”

Increase in remote working

The problem of isolation hasn’t just arisen in lockdown. The steady increase in remote working in recent years has created a silent, festering tear in the fabric of our social and emotional wellbeing. It’s an invisible wound, rarely talked about because there’s something ever so slightly shameful about feeling alone or, worse, complaining about it or being needy. Yet, if wellness is truly to be understood, then so does the need for human connection.

A solicitor on coping with the increase in domestic violence

Solicitor Keeley Lengthorn comments: “It’s been particularly tough during lockdown, dealing with clients who have suffered domestic violence. The level of violence we have seen is unprecedented and it’s been hard bringing this aspect of my job into my home. I’ve realised just how important it is to have the buffer of the office to escape from each night so I can psychologically switch off. Just having that car journey home from the office makes all the difference.

It’s also been tough not having my team around me for moral support and to talk cases through. But we’ve made a point of staying in touch regularly through Zoom meetings. We haven’t just met to talk about work, we’ve shared fun times too. We’ve made sure to meet weekly to keep the team spirit alive. It’s got us through the low points. And made us stronger as a group.”

A barrister on debriefing

“Years ago,” recalls barrister Christopher Rice, “people used to leave Chambers late, but would go to El Vino’s on Chancery Lane for a drink, or to a restaurant. In either place, the work talk was a sort of debriefing. Sharing experiences was a form of counselling. Now, in family law, we have Caselines. We can access it from home or the train. We don’t need to go into Chambers to pick up a bundle and have a quick chat with colleagues or the clerks along the way. We don’t need the chambers library, because we can find everything online. Every aspect of case prep and practice in general is now remote and sterile. As members of a Chambers we used to provide each other with a service as well as our clients. That’s all pretty much gone.

“Now, I can do an intense case (for example, involving child porn) and spend all Sunday preparing it. On Monday, I can have a tough day dealing with the graphic evidence, an emotional and needy client, a difficult opponent, the stress of travel and then repeat it all each day for a week without sharing my experiences and stresses at any point. It’s not the factual or legal difficulties that I need to share, it’s the emotional impact of a case. But now you’re on your own, pretty much all the time.”

A Children’s Guardian on camaraderie

Anne, a Children’s Guardian, agrees. “The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) encourages guardians to work from home, which can be very solitary. We’ve lost the sense of camaraderie there used to be. There’s no chance to debrief, no opportunity for personal contact until you go to court. A colleague’s mother died recently. At one time, I would have seen her at the office, talked about it over lunch, maybe. Now people deal with life events via email. It’s not healthy. So, I called her. It was better than a text, at least.

Isolation takes its toll when you constantly work from home. The effects are gradual but they’re there. You start to get sick of your own home. Guardians, like social workers, have increasingly heavy caseloads. And we never talk about the impact of the number of cases we have, and the type of work we do. Removing babies from parents, for example, is never easy, but we’re expected to do it week in, week out without ever processing it or talking it over.”

Tips – do all of these online

  1. Maintain contact with colleagues. Call them/set up a video meeting/meet them. Whichever way you do it, be direct. Share your experiences with them, so you can get sympathy, a different perspective or simply a listening ear. Just speaking out loud about a hard experience can be healing. Colleagues can prove more understanding than family or friends because they will have had similar experiences. With someone outside the legal profession, you may find yourself dealing with their trauma of hearing what you have to say. Much of the work that lawyers do is incomprehensible to someone not familiar with it. This sharing of your experience has to be your time and your need.
  2. Bring colleagues together at regular social events, virtual or in person. You’re doing something enjoyable together. You’re building connections that will help each of you when you need support.
  3. Put time aside for these meetings/social gatherings the way you would for preparing an upcoming case. Don’t see it as something unimportant. It’s as important as reading those five lever arch files.
  4. Arrange talks/seminars/workshops. Go to existing ones as a group virtually.
  5. Schedule in regular visits to the central office or a common location if safe and let others know so they can join you.

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

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