Post-Pandemic, Associate Training May Never Be The Same

By Aebra Coe
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Law360 (July 28, 2020, 5:46 PM EDT) -- Associate training has long been an in-person task, with partners and other managers sharing their expertise in boardrooms, courtrooms, offices and over lunch. But law firms have overhauled their methods as the world has moved virtual, and many firm leaders say they have no plans to fully go back to the old way of doing things once the pandemic subsides.

During the last five months, law firms have honed their virtual training techniques and, according to some firm leaders, there are elements of those programs that they plan to continue to make use of even when everyone is able to go back into the office.

That would mark a fundamental shift in how associates are trained.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Hogan Lovells has implemented a number of virtual training programs for attorneys of different seniority levels, according to the firm's Chief Learning Officer Heather Bock.

One of those programs, called Momentum, is a new virtual version of a leadership program for senior associates and counsel that the firm has long conducted in person. The firm uses Zoom for large-group, small-group and individual sessions, and adds discussions and mentor interactions to engage participants and stimulate collaboration, Bock said.

In conducting the program in such a manner, the firm learned that there were certain advantages that it had not seen with in-person training, Bock said. And, as a result of that, it will likely use elements of that virtual training going forward.

"A virtual program meant we were able to involve a broader mix of partner observers from multiple jurisdictions, which added richness and relevance for the participants from nine different offices," she said.

At the same time, though, there was an added challenge to replicate the networking component of past programs, Bock said. To make an effort to do so, the law firm scheduled informal "drink and snack" Zoom sessions to engage participants on a more personal level.

"Networking with people around the globe in Zoom breakout has been a great way to make our global firm feel local," Bock said. "Bringing faculty from one city to teach in another region used to require a flight and several days of time away. Now it's just a click."

Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod LLP, like many of its fellow firms, has increased virtual associate engagement in an effort to maintain its office culture even while everyone is working remotely, according to corporate practice group leader Jay Sakalo. That means weekly check-in calls with each associate by their group leader, usually by videoconference.

"That way we can maintain the face-to-face culture that we want to embed throughout the firm," Sakalo said.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of training associates, another benefit of the new virtual environment has come to the firm's attention, according to Bilzin Sumberg's Chief Legal Talent Officer Jessica Buchsbaum.

As a number of court hearings are now held by telephone or videoconference, associates have an easier time shadowing senior attorneys as they attend those hearings, simply picking up the phone and calling in.

"In the past it would have been difficult to take an associate out of the office the whole day to attend a court hearing, but now there's the opportunity for them to join by phone," Buchsbaum said.

The same is also true for partner meetings with clients, she added. The firm is based in Miami but has clients across the country, and it has realized how much easier and more cost-effective it is for associates to dial in and join a call when partners meet with clients over videoconference apps, instead of traveling across the country to do so. That's something the firm will likely continue to do post-pandemic, she said.

"With the benefit of everyone working remotely, putting our clients in front of our associates is happening much more often," she said.

Greenberg Traurig LLP co-President Brad Kaufman said his law firm has implemented a number of associate training programs during the pandemic, many aimed at improving attorneys' mental health and well-being during this stressful time.

One program is a series of webinars to train associates in practice areas that are experiencing an uptick in business during the pandemic.

"Associates who are concerned about their practice area slowing down have an opportunity to enhance their learning," Kaufman said. "That way they would feel a little more control over their circumstances and they could not only continue their learning, but feel a little less stressed."

"What we've learned is there are more things we can do using technology than we thought we were ready for," he added, referring to the firm's ability to operate in a remote environment.

There are parts of that virtual work environment he believes will benefit the firm post-pandemic. But, he said, there is a balance to be struck between conducting training virtually and providing young attorneys with in-person experience.

Part of the glue that holds a firm together and makes it strong are formative experiences gained by hunkering down in a conference room together and working through a difficult document or transaction, he said.

"There's so much value in that. We got used to working remotely, but we still don't know yet what that balance is," Kaufman said. "We'll learn that once we're back to a post-COVID environment." 

--Editing by Alanna Weissman and Rebecca Flanagan.

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