Despite Firms' Efforts, Associates Struggle With Remote Work

A year into COVID-19, associates at both BigLaw and Mid-Law firms told Law360 Pulse that firms have made good efforts to ensure that associates have the same career and mentoring opportunities they would have had in person, but the pandemic has still been rough for many younger lawyers.

From burnout to concerns about making partner, associates talked about their career worries and their take on how their firms have handled the pandemic when it comes to supporting associates.

Overall, associates said their firms have handled the pandemic and remote work as well as could be expected, and that many efforts geared toward attorneys early in their careers were appreciated. However, the reality is that the pandemic has still taken a toll, both professionally and personally, on younger lawyers.

"At first, I was dreading having to work from home, but so far it's been fine," said Sophia Dauria, an associate at Troutman Pepper who started during the pandemic. "I think they [the firm] have done, honestly, the best that they could in the circumstances."

At the beginning of the pandemic, one of the many concerns firms expressed about remote work was the impact on associates.

Associates' training opportunities can be very ad hoc, from being pulled into a meeting to sitting in a partner's office during a client call to knocking on more senior associates' doors with questions. That kind of experience, as well as the informal mentoring that can happen in an office, are hard to replicate in an online world.

A year in, associates said most firms seem to have stepped up and followed through on their promises of support.

"The last year for a lot of associates was really difficult," said Bide Akande, a litigation associate at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP. "A lot of associates, we had a lot of anxiety when the pandemic first started. But [Porter Wright] almost immediately recognized a lot of the difficulties ... and started a bunch of different programs that were catered towards alleviating those pressures."

Porter Wright started having weekly meetings with associates and communicating that associates were valued, he said. It also launched a new mentorship initiative where associates were able to list five attorneys from across the firm they would like to work with, and the firm facilitated those connections to help associates develop a "mentor village."

A lot of the matters he and his colleagues have worked on for the past year have come out of those relationships, Akande said.

Many firms have also sponsored events or video calls for associates and reinforced the importance of associate mentoring in official messaging. And in many places, more senior attorneys have made a point to check in with younger lawyers to see how they are holding up.

Many associates said that more than anything, they have appreciated getting clear, regular and transparent updates from their firms.

"Our firm has been very communicative with us throughout this whole work-from-home environment ... and was very proactive about how things were going at the firm and what the plan was," said Kristin Hucek, a senior associate at litigation boutique Keker Van Nest & Peters. "As an associate, that really put me at ease and took away a lot of worry."

And despite the challenges and the stress of the pandemic, associates said they and their colleagues do seem to be managing the virtual world fairly well. In some ways, associates said, there are even some advantages to working remotely, such as getting to participate in virtual hearings or depositions out of state that once might have not justified the travel cost for an associate.

However, associates reported that despite the best efforts of firms during the pandemic, there still have been struggles.

"A lot of the joy of practicing, I've found, is being able to interact with my colleagues in person," Hucek said. "Working at a smaller firm in particular — one of the reasons I was attracted to this firm and like working at Keker is that everyone enjoys interacting with one another. … So that's been hard."

Working from home has also increased the pressure some associates feel to be available at all hours. It has also meant that associates have had to be more assertive about asking for opportunities or reaching out to partners, which some said can be intimidating.

"Everyone's gotten into this routine of working from home, blinders on, just getting through their workday," Dauria said. "As a first-year ... you have to make the push to remind people [that you're there.]"

She's gotten good responses from everyone she's reached out to, she added, but it can definitely feel "awkward" to send cold emails or ask to be included.

Chelsea Ireland, who was an associate at McKool Smith PC before leaving in January to join the spinoff firm Cohen Ziffer Frenchman McKenna LLP, echoed this idea.

"For people that are less outgoing, it's probably been a lot harder," she said.

It's something that she thinks may also have a disproportionate impact on female associates. Research has shown that women across industries are less likely to be assertive in asking for raises or higher compensation. For Ireland, it seems likely that a similar situation may be happening among associates now.

"I have no doubt that it's the same kind of thing [as compensation]," she said. "I've got no doubt that there's going to be a long-term effect with respect to discrepancies between genders, because it is that phenomenon you see over and over again, where women feel less comfortable reaching out or taking the first step."

Associates just starting out in their careers also have unique worries, such as whether missing out on the usual informal networking that happens for most first-years in an office will set them back.

"Being productive in ... what many lawyers consider to be the hardest year of their lives, their first year of law practice, during a pandemic? It just dampens productivity," said a first-year associate at the 400-attorney firm Lathrop GPM, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly.

The firm has made an effort to make associates feel included and to reach out, they said, but things are still rough for members of the class of 2020, who did not expect to start their law careers at the same desk where they finished law school and studied for the bar exam.

Dauria, who started at Troutman Pepper in January, said she has been surprised at how easy it's been to connect with new colleagues virtually. But it's still strange that she hasn't seen any of her colleagues in person since the end of the 2019 summer program — if she has ever met them at all, she said.

Associates said they also worry about the impact the pandemic may have on their careers even after it ends.

Hucek said she has been lucky in that hearings and depositions in her cases have largely continued without too much disruption to the schedule. Some colleagues, however, were expecting to go to trial around the time the pandemic started and have been in a holding pattern for a year, costing them opportunities.

"I've been able to get the same or similar stand-up opportunities I would in the office," she said. However, she added, she's aware that fact is pure luck.

She's hopeful, she said, that firms will be understanding toward senior associates when it comes time to make partner decisions.

Akande said his own productivity took a hit in 2020 and that he didn't hit his target number for billable hours. However, he said, he felt that the firm didn't hold that against him.

"They were really, really proactive [after my annual evaluation] to figure out ways to give me more opportunities," he said. He added, "I can't imagine a way that my development was not going to take some type of a hit with COVID, but I don't think I'm far behind where I want to be. And I'm encouraged by the fact that at least some firms are thinking, 'How do we continue to develop associates?'"

Right now, many associates are taking comfort from the vaccine rollout — and the warming weather — and hoping that things will go back to normal soon. But that hope for a better 2021 doesn't erase 2020 either; several associates said they worry about the potential for burnout, either for themselves or their colleagues.

For the class of 2020, especially, the Lathrop associate noted, there hasn't been any chance for a bar trip or other opportunity to blow off steam after law school and the bar exam. It's created a real potential for burnout among new lawyers, they said.

Ireland said it seems clear to her from conversations with her friends and colleagues that burnout is something that should be on firms' radar. When people in her circle joke about quitting, she said, it's starting to sound less like a joke.

"[Firms should] be less concerned about who needs more work and more concerned about the people who have been steady at the upper end for months on end," she said. "Burnout's always been a problem ... but when you're not in the office and you're not seeing people on a day-to-day basis, you might not even notice how much someone's working or how tired they are, or if something's not OK."

Akande said he thinks the difference between places that will see widespread burnout and those that won't will be how much they made an effort to support associates on a human level during a year that was intensely trying for so many people.

"I had a week and a half where I was struggling to find motivation," Akande said. "And one of the partners called me just to see if I was OK. … We just talked for almost two hours. There was a permission given there to just be human, to feel the sadness and the disappointment and the turmoil — and a recognition that this year sucks."

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