Law360 (March 2, 2021, 2:22 PM EST) --
The COVID-19 pandemic plunged law firms the world over into remote working, with lawyers, trainees and staff all having to adjust quickly to a de facto virtual reality. For those just beginning their legal careers, the prospect of joining a law firm during the pandemic will cause added pressure and uncertainty at an already anxious time.
Indeed, despite the vaccine rollout, remote working, at least in some capacity, could be here to stay for some time. As such, the traditional expectations have given way to a host of new challenges to overcome. Aspiring lawyers — as well as law firms and supervising lawyers — will need to know how to navigate this brave new world.
Based on our experiences as trainees, here are some lessons to consider at all levels of a firm when joining or welcoming young talent into legal life in 2021.
Preparation is key.
This past year has seen upheaval across the world, so it is imperative for trainees and summer associates to do their research. If you understand what to expect, you will be in a much stronger position to succeed.
For instance, those students interested in disputes may have been expecting numerous trips to court. However, you are far more likely to be in a Microsoft Teams breakout room than a courtroom.
Students should therefore be reading up on virtual hearings and the processes, which are now commonplace, certainly in commercial disputes in the U.K. These have thrown up new challenges as tribunals and courts have been keen to ensure that hearings are not delayed, which entails additional logistical issues, particularly when dealing with parties across different time zones. There are obviously hiccups, particularly with background noise and people forgetting to mute themselves.
Perhaps a further sign of the times is the replacement of large paper bundles and paper notes — traditionally passed around in court — with groups on WhatsApp and other mobile applications. Given the increased focus on eco-friendly business practices, these paperless procedures may well be here to stay, so it is doubly important to be comfortable with them.
Further, while COVID-19 has disrupted the status quo in many ways, it is still important for trainees to look the part for court. You might be attending court from the comfort of your bedroom but it is best not to let the judge know that.
Beyond practice-specific changes, trainees should familiarize themselves with remote working, technology, work patterns as well as techniques for well-being as best they can. The better you are prepared, the less overwhelming it will be.
Law firms, too, need to anticipate the unique challenges that remote working will throw up for incoming millennials and Generation Z talent. Yes, they may have been brought up in a digital world, but stepping into a digital workplace, with limited interaction, is daunting.
Firms should do their utmost to have structures and best practices in place before trainees and summer associates join — covering training, logistics, communications, supervision, catchups, socials and anything else that will help new starters hit the ground running.
Patience is also important.
"Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting," so says a quick Google search on quotes about patience.
Training young lawyers can be time-consuming at the best of times, but the added pressures of remote working increase the challenges. It is natural to take time to adjust to a new workplace, but without direct exposure to an office environment, it can take trainees a little longer to get up to speed with all the intricacies and procedures.
Training partners and supervisors must appreciate the situation — perhaps by asking how they would react in the current environment — and seek to make allowances for the unique challenges younger lawyers face, providing an extra bit of encouragement whenever possible.
Firms must pay attention to introduction and induction.
Joining a new firm is always an experience that merges excitement and anticipation, and that is exacerbated in a remote working capacity. The usual induction practices, such as touring the office to meet colleagues and welcome drinks, are gone. Firms have to ensure that new talent is onboarded and integrated effectively, with regular updates and information on what juniors are up to or engaged with.
Trainees, don't be wallflowers.
For trainees, supervisors and training principals have likely gone to great lengths to make sure that because we are out of sight, we are not out of mind. Trainees are seeing efforts beyond the traditional collaborative approaches and creative ways to involve young lawyers. For example, instead of simply handing down daily tasks within teams, firms are engaging trainees in activities related to the wider practice of the firm, including business development activities and thought leadership articles.
Even so, it is imperative for trainees or students not to become complacent. In the remote environment, you must be proactive, so do not be afraid to approach partners and associates for work, where and when appropriate. In volunteering and taking on various requests, trainees will often find that these off-the-cuff tasks end up being engaging and bring new perspectives on the work or the firm.
The loss of a shared office means the chances for supervisors to get ongoing updates or issue a friendly "hurry up" also decrease. Trainees need to ensure that they are managing their schedules and expectations as there is more emphasis on being motivated and responsible.
Who ya gonna call? As many people as possible.
One major impact of remote working is losing those direct personal interactions with people trainees can easily attain in an office — whether by attending group meetings, sharing offices or bumping into people in the corridors. Establishing a pattern of interpersonal relationships is hard when coming in fresh to an organization, and even harder in the remote environment.
Email has transformed the workplace to become the main form of communication, including within law firms. That works well with people you know, but partners should always take the time to make outreach personal and not exclusively digital for new starters. It is hard to build up a rapport without personal interaction, when all communication is done via email.
Both partners and trainees should therefore be trying to organize as many video or phone calls as possible. While physically spending time with people is impossible for most right now, interacting with someone so they can at least see and hear each helps to create a connection.
But be conscious of senior lawyers' time.
It is almost impossible to replicate the shared-office experience virtually. As a new starter, it is natural to have lots of questions. Working from home means that it is harder to ask your supervisor a simple question and for a supervisor to provide an answer, like you would if you were sharing an office.
This could actually be beneficial for the development of trainees. For example, rather than asking a question, you develop the confidence to do your own research and become much better prepared in what you are asking and why.
Outside of an office environment, you cannot practically organize a video call for every minor question. It is better to keep regular contact but consolidate your questions and use the appropriate format.
A quick question can usually be addressed by email. Short catch-up calls at least three times a week are a good option to ask any pressing questions or gain feedback. These calls can also serve as a good way to talk about interests outside of work and help people get to know each other better.
On the other hand, it is imperative that senior lawyers take time out of their busy schedules and commit to spending time with junior lawyers to address their needs.
Prepare for lights, camera, action.
Few students coming into the law before 2020 would have expected an immediate requirement for decent videoconferencing skills. Video calls are now a mainstay, it would seem and, unconsciously or not, certain levels of expectations have emerged.
Trainees must make sure they are proficient in setting up their equipment, framing, sound and background, and hone their presentation skills and general etiquette. Speaking on video calls, whether they are important client meetings or casual social calls, can be daunting for many people, so it would be an advantage to try to develop some of these skills ahead of joining a firm.
Trainees must seize opportunities to network.
Working remotely means that the informal chats, coffees, lunches or social events that you may have enjoyed with colleagues from the pre-COVID-19 era are currently unavailable. In the absence of such valuable conversations, the onus is much more on trainees to reach out and engage in any activities, such as online quizzes or social meetings, to become part of the firm as best they can. For example, we have formal trainee catch-up meetings each week, and a monthly trainee social. Our next social is set to be a virtual cocktail evening.
Trainees, do make time for yourselves.
Screen time can be intense for a trainee working from home, so whether by going for a walk or run, doing a home workout, or just having some quiet time away from your desk and screen, make time for yourself. You will be more effective and efficient.
Work and home life are so intertwined now that it is incredibly important to have that down time. Protect yourself from burnout. Likewise, engage in interests and hobbies so you can refresh yourself and your mind, and do not forget to take vacation. Although travel is severely limited, having a solid period of time to rest and recuperate is critical.
Likewise, firms make a real difference when they encourage staff to take breaks. Working for weeks or months on end, especially with little rest and recreation options during lockdown, is going to take its toll. Firms should also be mindful that maintaining long hours amid high expectations in de facto isolation can be harsh on juniors.
It is certainly an interesting era to be entering the legal world. Many countries went into lockdown to flatten the coronavirus curve but, as the market conventions were subsequently overhauled, many aspiring lawyers will now be hoping to emerge from lockdowns ahead of the curve.
William Morris and Ted Landray are trainees at King & Spalding LLP.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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