Ask A Mentor: How Can Firms Coach Associates Remotely?

Experts answer questions on career and workplace conundrums in this Law360 Pulse guest column series. Have a question you're afraid to ask your law firm chair, practice area leader or mentor? Submit it anonymously here.



In this installment, Carol Goodman, who mentors attorneys in her firm's litigation department, explains how senior attorneys must adapt to the virtual environment when mentoring junior attorneys.

Q: How can senior law firm partners ensure junior lawyers and first-year associates don't miss out on vital mentorship and camaraderie when in-person interactions are limited?

—Senior partner at a midsize law firm

Carol Goodman

Over the past year, I have asked associates and partners their opinions on the value of returning to the physical office. There are many differing views.

Staying remote certainly has its advantages — especially in terms of child care, elder care, commuting and even increased productivity. But while billable hours may remain the same or even increase, one must ask what is lost from working remotely when developing legal skills has traditionally required apprentice-type mentoring.

As a young associate, I remember being told that the best way to learn is to shadow a partner. I recall that senior lawyers would make me participate in a moot court before an argument, accompany me downtown to the courthouse, and even pass me notes while the adversary was arguing their position.

I observed and listened while senior lawyers spoke, yelled or even settled cases in the hallway before or after the argument. I sat at dozens of depositions and hearings as the second chair and would take ownership of the exhibits, run back and forth to get critical documents, and hand notes to the senior lawyer to impart some important piece of information.

I accompanied senior lawyers to clients' offices or off-site meetings, and spent countless hours assisting in the preparation of witnesses in our conference rooms.

I also found that being in the physical space led to better work assignments. Opportunities to work on key cases seemed to come my way when I was present and visible, and I was often pulled into meetings on the spot.

And let's not forget camaraderie. Developing work relationships with my colleagues was — and still is — a critical component of collaboration. Being in the trenches together formed lasting close friendships, which are now, decades later, also important sources of business.

Additionally, how does a junior lawyer learn to develop business through a computer monitor? I learned how to bring in new business by attending client breakfasts, lunches, dinners and events — and I spent significant time speaking with clients in their space to really understand their business.

I have thought about these questions for the past 13 months. I have also considered the additional burdens that isolation, health issues, elder care and child care have had on our already stressful jobs as lawyers.

And regardless of whether we eventually end up in the same physical space or remain at a distance, practicing law through a virtual platform is likely here to stay in some capacity.

Below are my lessons learned, and some advice I would offer to senior lawyers to ensure that, even in a remote environment, junior lawyers continue to develop the skills they will need in their practice moving forward.

Facilitate connections.

We need to make an effort to connect regularly and meaningfully. Time is always limited, but the value of one-on-one virtual meetings cannot be underestimated. Consider reevaluating and refurbishing your mentor program to facilitate regular meetings.

Schedule group and department meetings on a regular basis and give notice of informal check-ins. If a meeting is scheduled in advance, attendees will have time to find a quiet space.

Try to speak about more than the work assignment. Remember how you used to walk into an associate's office and ask about their weekend or talk about a case in the news?

Make sure that a new associate who is onboarding virtually is also connected to fellow associates.​ Making the effort to form and maintain personal connections within the team should continue even while we're working remotely. 

Encourage and be an example of professionalism.

For the first three months of the pandemic, we could all get away with "I haven't had time to shower today." But as mentors, it is important to stay professional and polished. Dust off those business casual clothes and put them on.

Setting an example of professionalism and decorum for junior lawyers is important because the remote environment is the work environment. We should be prepared for unplanned virtual court appearances, client video meetings, settlement conferences, etc., just as we had to be prepandemic.

Be present and respectful, and limit multitasking during meetings.

Make sure that you are fully present for any scheduled meetings, as opposed to turning off the video function because you are calling on your way from the gym or grocery store. While pets and children are now a component of our remote working environment, find a time when both you and the junior lawyer can be in a quiet place.

Everyone should turn on their video. With video technology, we can change our backgrounds, so whether a lawyer is in a home office or a laundry room, it shouldn't matter so long as it is reasonably quiet. Headphones can help as well.

In addition, try not to multitask during your virtual meetings. Be in the moment, and consider turning off social media. Resist responding to that email or text. If we are so busy that we have to multitask, we should think about shorter meetings so we can be 100% present. Set the example, and your associates will follow suit.

Focus on training.

Make a point to continue with regular training programs, perhaps in the form of weekly or monthly trainings via video. Make sure the sessions are engaging and interactive. Design breakout rooms with small groups to encourage questions and collaboration. Feedback and performance reviews are critical and can be conducted virtually one-on-one.

In addition, mentors and mentees can learn to embrace the digital age together.

Many companies, such as court reporters and title companies, offer training for free. Attorneys at all levels have never had to rely so heavily on technology, so this is the type of training that senior and junior lawyers can experience together.

In fact, junior lawyers who may be more technologically savvy can have real input on how to best leverage these new tools. Learn together how to admit exhibits and state objections virtually, and speak with your client who is not physically next to you. Learn how to notarize, file and exchange original documents digitally.

Don't forget client events.

Conduct client events virtually, and make sure junior lawyers are involved. Internal events are equally as important. Ask your junior lawyers to help plan virtual events. This can range from a wine tasting to playing virtual games. It doesn't have to be expensive or complicated.

Conclusion

On a personal note, my youngest daughter started law school last year via Zoom. I remember feeling disappointed, thinking that she would simply not get the same law school experience as her dad and I did.

How would she meet fellow students? How would she form study groups? How would she be able to compete in moot court? How would she study without a library?

But she quickly learned to adapt. The professors connected with the students via video (sound and video always on), and even cold-called on the students. She was able to form study groups by video. She had a moot court argument with feedback virtually from the judge. 

My point is, she, like others in the future generations of lawyers, will be better equipped to be an advocate in both the traditional sense and in the new digital age.

So, as I say to my colleagues — breathe. Whether you are just starting out in the practice of law or have been practicing for decades, our profession is stressful, even without a pandemic. This is a challenging time, and we are exhausted. Above all else, we must be flexible, patient and empathetic to one another.



Carol Goodman is a partner at Herrick Feinstein LLP, where she co-chairs the firm's litigation department and chairs the firm's employment practice.

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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