It almost seems surreal looking back to this time last year. I had just returned from maternity leave and was getting used to “the new juggle” which at the time meant very little sleep, spending hours making baby food (most of which ended up on the floor) whilst getting used to working back in the city. I had spent the autumn and winter of 2019/ 2020 replacing my normal busy schedule of candidate catch-ups and client meetings with an over the top, and at times slightly unrealistic, schedule of baby classes and a mother and baby fitness routine, to some degree of success.
As I returned to work at the start of 2020 little could prepare me for what lay ahead. January 2020 seemed somewhat of a normal month, recruitment activity was buoyant, and everyone seemed to be optimistic about what the new year would hold. However, it was not long before the talk of COVID was sweeping the city. Hand sanitiser stations were popping up in the lobbies and meeting rooms of law firms and soon anyone attending an interview was asked to complete a COVID questionnaire confirming they had not travelled from an “at-risk” country, the number of which seemed to be increasing by the day. By the beginning of March 2020, it seemed that almost every other interview was being rescheduled due to at least one attendee displaying some form of COVID symptoms usually having returned from a recent Ski trip!
At the beginning of March, whilst trying to keep up with the COVID news, Gerry Arbuckle and I were meeting regularly to discuss how the business should respond to the virus. A week before the first national lockdown was announced we discussed cancelling all future meetings and working from home by the end of the following week. That evening as I left the office, I distinctly remember saying goodbye and a “see you tomorrow” comment, as I made a mad dash to leave the office for my little boy’s bedtime. Overnight we changed our mind and decided that we should all work from home with immediate effect. Whilst I am immensely proud of the speed that we made these decisions I could never have imagined that my “see you tomorrow” comment would still not have happened in the context of us all working together in the office.
Within a matter of weeks, the private practice associate market had all but stopped! Whilst partner recruitment continued it was still very much a stop start process. I took the view that with a depressed market and no childcare options the best and only thing that I could do would be to take some time looking after my little boy and juggle the demands of work in whatever time I could find. It was a strange feeling from having psyched myself up to return to work with as much gusto as I had before my maternity leave to then be almost back on maternity leave after such a short period of time, but despite the circumstances I will always be grateful for the extra time I had with my little boy in the Spring of 2020.
The first couple of weeks of lockdown were spent making strategic decisions about the business, usually during my baby’s naptimes and in between Gerry’s shifts with his 3 children. I remember one comment from Gerry during this time of “didn’t we agree to do something completely different yesterday”, the answer was “YES”. It was a fastmoving situation with so many different support options announced by the government it was hard to keep up let alone know if we were making the right decisions. At the time, our overriding principle was to support our team and their families in whatever way we could as we knew that we are all good at what we do so we could re-build the business.
By June 2020, there were some green shoots of activity within the associate market and some short-lived hoped that normality was just around the corner. However, my working day seemed far from normal. Before the pandemic I had always worked one day a week from home whilst spending the rest of the time physically immersed in the world of the London private practice market. My day would be filled up with candidate catch-ups, lunches and client meetings. At this point I thought it would be impossible to build any new relationships with clients or candidates without a face to face meeting. Thankfully, my initial concerns were unfounded and during the summer of 2020, I developed a significant number of new relationships with clients and candidates whilst catching up and checking in with my existing network. Whilst recruitment was quieter over the summer, I was still able to provide people with good career advice and help people searching for new positions make positive moves.
Despite the lockdown restrictions being eased over the summer we took the view that home working would still be the best approach for our business and to help control the spread of the virus. We did manage one team meet-up on a Summer’s day at The Grove, in Hertfordshire. Being able to reconnect as a team and share lockdown stories and our usual team banter was a well-deserved change from the norm for us all and one of the highlights of my 2020!
By the autumn of 2020 there were a surprising number of new associate and partner opportunities. Whilst processes were taking longer due to sign-off issues it was encouraging to see that private practice firms had shown a great level of resilience in dealing with the effect of the pandemic and were now confident enough to start recruiting. On a personal level, this had been the time I had been worried about the most due to the shorter days and colder weather. As a way to keep everyone positive we kept each other motivated with various running and bike riding challenges. It was a great way to keep connected and to get us all through the end of autumn to Christmas.
Like most firms, we managed some form of online Christmas party which consisted of an online cook-along, thankfully with no culinary disasters! Instead of our normal packed schedule of Christmas client lunches, breakfasts and dinners we made donations to several charities that we thought would need our help now more than ever.
The first working day of 2021 was a rather gloomy day both in terms of the weather but also with the very real threat of a third national lockdown (which included school closures) which was officially announced that evening. However, by the end of the first week of the year, there were encouraging signs of more recruitment activity both in terms of new jobs and an increased level of candidate confidence.
In recent months, recruitment activity has all but returned to what I would regard as a “relatively stable market”. Like most firms we have still not decided when we will return to working in London. In the future it’s likely that our working patterns will be more autonomous whilst we look at ways of maintaining a high level of collaboration within our team.
Looking back at the last twelve months I cannot believe the strength and resilience that we as a business, together with all those that we work with have shown. It’s been an exhausting year for everyone and whilst I look forward to the days when these pandemic years are all but a distant memory, I hope that some of the lessons we have learnt and changes that we have made will be things that we can take with us into the new normal.