In a keynote panel at September’s Virtual Section Annual Meeting, leaders in the American Bar Association’s Business Law Section shared thought-provoking and informative reflections on the impacts of the past year on the profession and expectations for the year ahead.
During the meeting’s Welcome Reception, Citigroup General Counsel Rohan Weerasinghe and Teresa Wilton Harmon, Managing Partner of Sidley Austin LLP’s Chicago office, discussed the future of legal practice for business lawyers. Jeannie Frey, 2020–2021 chair of the Business Law Section, moderated the panel, whose wide-ranging discussion touched on changing expectations for attorney work-life balance; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and business and professional development.
Harmon highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic has left the legal profession at a “pivotal moment” in changing work environments. “We have a new economy starting up all around us, we have new ways of working together,” she said. “Firms are recognizing that we’re in a talent business—that health and wellbeing, and satisfaction of our team members, are really important to getting the results that we need.”
The panelists praised the increased flexibility that has come with remote work and expressed hope it will continue; Frey described the remote work world as giving attorneys “permission to be human… to be able to acknowledge that you have other parts of your life and have that be respected.”
But they noted new challenges, too.
“There’s a blurring of when you’re at work and when you’re at home,” Weerasinghe said. “We have to figure out how to deal with that in a post-COVID Zoom environment. I think it’s important to protect people’s personal time just as much as giving them the flexibility.”
DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION ISSUES
Frey pointed out that in the past year and a half, the “need to acknowledge real systemic social and racial justice issues in the legal profession as well as society at large” has been as significant a focus as the pandemic. She asked Harmon and Weerasinghe whether we can expect to see “real progress in the near future in law firms being more likely to hire, support and promote lawyers of color, women, and other diverse and underrepresented groups.”
The panelists agreed the profession is improving on these issues but has much further to go: “We’ve got to keep fighting,” Weerasinghe said. Harmon discussed some bright spots, noting that she’s seeing stronger buy-in for DEI initiatives, as well as more efforts like the Sidley Prelaw Scholars program that aim to address systemic barriers to a diverse array of talent entering the legal profession.
“Our job is to ensure a just world,” Harmon said. “Racial justice has to be part of our bread and butter every day.”
The conversation turned to how in-house lawyers can work on increasing diversity and inclusion. Weerasinghe highlighted the importance of thoughtful hiring, ensuring that not only candidate pools but also the set of individuals who interview them are diverse. “It’s a key part of making sure we get the right perspective, and we try to minimize—I’d like to say eliminate, but I’m practical—minimize any kind of unconscious bias,” he said. He also pointed out that greater openness to remote work is enabling employers to draw on a larger and more diverse talent pool.
As with many aspects of attorneys’ work that have changed during the pandemic, business development has been no exception. The panelists argued those changes presented new chances for success, particularly for young lawyers.
“We’re seeing entire areas, including areas that are focused on technology, and health and life sciences, and fintech, that really weren’t that strong before the pandemic where there’s incredible growth now,” Harmon said. “For newer lawyers… I think it’s actually a neat business development opportunity.”
The panel also discussed the need for young and mid-career lawyers to work with more experienced colleagues, and for those colleagues to actively support them.
“You’re going to have to figure out, as the COVID situation improves, how you can get more visibility on a face-to-face with some potential clients but also work with more senior partners at law firms to get them to introduce you,” Weerasinghe said.
Frey argued that reaching out to connect with up-and-coming attorneys is crucial. “I look around at my team, and I have team members who will be practicing here, I hope, long after I’m gone. I want them to be developing those peer relationships now… so that that relationship with the firm and the individuals can grow, and we can support the professional growth of those more junior lawyers.”
No matter what other opportunities arise in the future, Harmon argued, professional organizations like the ABA should stay part of attorneys’ business development mix.
“That’s always been a huge part of my business plan, of my business development, since I went to my first ABA Section of Business Law meeting as an associate,” Harmon said. “It’s been great to see the ABA stay strong, reach out to more people, and find new ways for people to build connections across their professional lives… It’s a really important part of our fabric as lawyers.”