Remote Law Firm Culture Should Prioritize Associate Training

By Melissa Schwind, William Kenney and Jaron Luttich
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Law360 (April 7, 2021, 6:05 PM EDT) --
Melissa Schwind
Melissa Schwind
William Kenney
William Kenney
Jaron Luttich
Jaron Luttich
The sudden shutdown of in-person training has required law firms nationwide to rethink their training approach from the ground up. 

A recent Law360 article offered an overview of how COVID-19 pushed litigation training into the virtual space.

While it's true that COVID-19 gave firms no other choice but to adapt, it also raised questions that were overdue for an answer long before the inception of the Zoom meeting.

After executing 2020's overhaul to litigation training, professional development leaders are now grappling with one such question. How does a law firm convey the unique value of its culture to someone who isn't sitting in the office?

With summer associate season upon us and the real possibility that firms will need to demonstrate at least some of that cultural value remotely, it's turning into an inflection point for firm culture.

Many firms struggled to distinguish themselves long before 2020.

The unpredictability of the past year alone allowed employers and employees to give each other a pass. Employees understood when law firms cut wages in early 2020, and firms haven't hesitated to reverse those same cuts this year. Regardless of expertise and experience level, all of us have been improvising to some degree.

This is far from the first unanticipated event that has shaken up law firm culture. Before the Great Recession that began in December 2007 and lasted 18 months, firms wined and dined with dinners, drinks and trips on your choice of yacht or private jet.

It might be a trite point to make in 2021, but big spending showed security, bravado and often involved caviar.

The invitation to join the firm for the summer was a guaranteed job offer after graduation. Only truly vile conduct from the summer would jeopardize that golden ticket.

Post-recession, bravado and big spending lost much of their charm. Much like the COVID-19 crisis today, firms saw an opportunity to experiment.

Summer associates started seeing more work on their desks. Clients started seeing more of that work on their invoices. Golden ticket offers turned into a cutthroat trip through the chocolate factory, where only a few summer associates of a group received offers.

Demonstrating cultural value starts with learning and ends with connection.

After more than two years of competing for class rank, most summer associates aren't interested in either starving for work or feasting on tapas.

They're hungry for knowledge, practical experience and genuine connections.

In many firms, the value of expensive meals was in the conversation rather than the cuisine. Personal connections promised mentorship. Whether that mentorship materialized is a discussion for another day, but the value in the short-term is clear.

Summer associates yearn to develop productive professional relationships with successful practitioners and the ability to do so offered immense and immediate value. If you click with someone, you click.

While any firm can pay the bill, not every firm can facilitate that connection. In fact, the aforementioned Law360 article cited losing the ability to engage with experienced colleagues as one of the most significant drawbacks to remote training.

That makes bridging the gap to remote summer associates even more difficult and important.

Those moments of realization are difficult to plan, made even more difficult because a summer associate's decision to join a firm relies on the associate's gut feeling as much as careful calculation.

That said, recognizing the value at the heart of these connections is the first step to enabling them.

Summer associates — and first-year associates for that matter — have spent the bulk of their time as law students getting cold-called in lecture halls. Creating relatively warmer and less intimidating settings makes that clicking moment far more likely.

One thing hasn't changed through the Great Recession, COVID-19 or our new normal: the fact that these associates remain hungry sponges that want to succeed.

There are lots of ways to capitalize on that drive. But there are better options than creating as many points of interaction as possible, developing Zoom-based strategies that will immediately go obsolete, or relying on the old ways of creating rapport.

Instead, give them something concrete. Give them training. Established attorneys have an understandable tendency to dismiss the value of training.

Many of them have to rush to get continuing legal education requirements completed before the year ends, meaning that training becomes a frustrating struggle to check off administrative boxes.

With that in mind, it's understandable that those attorneys so often overlook the value of purposeful training conducted for the sake of real learning. However, the hungry sponges are eager to apply the law they've spent years downloading from casebooks. Those same sponges intuit that practical training carries enormous value and represents nothing less than the next step in their successful career.

Learning is real. Learned things are transferable. The act of providing training shows value.

A focus on training shows that a firm has a culture of continual learning. It demonstrates a culture of caring for the success of its newest employees and one of efficiency that recognizes law school courses cover only a fraction of what's necessary.

Perhaps most notably, it shows all of these while conveying a future-oriented culture of security.

Not all firms have the financial support to tap teams of external consultants to develop a training program along these lines. But why not look inward?

Professionals at the firm have deep knowledge that's tailor-made for the type of practice their trainees will be involved in. Structure follows from existing training programs that can be built upon or streamlined.

For example, it's inefficient having supervising attorneys train and retrain on basic items such as formatting a contract or section filing practices, which many tend to do on an ad hoc basis.

Instead, group these basic items by their section and create section-specific training sessions to be recorded. Associates now have a training tool that doesn't drag on supervising attorney time.

Cost and efficiency aren't the only reasons that firms should build on their supervising attorney program. Having direct involvement from more senior associates means more opportunities to make those elusive personal connections and demonstrate firm culture directly to summer associates.

The transition to a virtual environment pressed firms to take stock of their current training programs, and in doing so opened up opportunities to adapt both the content and structure of training programs.

A virtual or hybrid workplace allows for practices like rotating summer associates through multiple offices for lunches and coffee chats. These can be done in one-on-one or small group settings to give every summer a completely personalized experience and every opportunity to click with senior associates.

Splitting interactions into bite-sized chunks isn't just about personalization. Nonbillable time is limited and the issue of Zoom fatigue makes the bite-sized format ideal for socialization, mentorship and learning.

Taking topic sessions that once stretched past an hour and chunking them into 10-15 minute segments makes them more digestible and allows them to more easily fit into even the busiest schedule.

The fact that this structure requires firms to spread these sessions across multiple weeks rather than packing them into one week seems like a drawback at first, but it helps facilitate deeper connections and gives summer associates a reason to keep in contact with potential mentors. In other words, it provides more chances to click.

A focus on training prioritizes the future and avoids the mistakes of the past.

Robust and conscientious training programs are the exquisite dinners of 2021. Though training programs aren't full of outdated bravado, they are still a luxury that not all firms can afford. Both demonstrate the ability to spend on something that may be a complete waste to the providing firm, if the associate chooses to go elsewhere.

Not every change will stick. But the Law360 article proves useful here, too. It suggests that in-person training is certain to return, but many of virtual training's best elements are sure to stick around as permanent improvements.

Training likewise avoids the scarcity mistakes of the post-Great Recession approach. They strike this middle ground by providing real building blocks for associates to use in visualizing a successful future practice. All without the need to hypercompete with their summer associate class.

Thanks to COVID-19, the gap between law school and the first day on the job has never been wider. Problems of this scale reset the landscape and offer the same potential for everyone.

The firms that leverage training to build a bridge over that intimidating gap will not only demonstrate cultural value, but firms will receive the payoff of having a better prepared workforce.

Melissa Forshey Schwind is director of attorney recruiting, professional development, and diversity and inclusion at Ward and Smith PA.

William Kenney is a law student intern at Element Standard.

Jaron Luttich is a co-founder at Element Standard.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firms, 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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