March 01, 2021 The Marketing Issue

First-Year Focus in a Pandemic

How are professional development staff keeping associates engaged in the COVID era?

Jill McCall
Keeping first-year associates engaged and ensuring their development are new challenges during the COVID era.

Keeping first-year associates engaged and ensuring their development are new challenges during the COVID era.

via FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images

For law firms everywhere, a lot has changed since March 2020. Their priorities, their budgets, their essential travel. These changes impact a law firm’s professional development training as well: training logistics, insights on how best to execute a lawyer’s work and what the “hot” topics are. The constant? The tried-and-true skills of serving as good counsel.

Gary R. Krohn, attorney development manager at Mayer Brown LLP, has found that the main concepts for training new lawyers should not change. “We continue to run a variety of core legal skills programs for transactional and controversy-based lawyers, followed by practice area specific courses,” explains Krohn. Instead, spend time punching up the delivery format: “Working in the virtual environment, rather than the pandemic itself, has given new focus to training on technology sources, the importance of active communications, networking and staying connected,” Krohn explains.

Morgan Smith, the professional development director of Dykema Gossett PLLC, agrees. To help her attorneys weather the times, Smith has peppered in “how to” topics to help her new (and seasoned) attorneys better manage in this more virtual world. Today, Smith’s classes include how to do a remote deposition or hearing, what to say and how to say it, and how to counsel clients in times of uncertainty.


As far as uncertainty goes, various laws changed unusually quickly and often before they were finalized during the pandemic. Considering that some of these changes were made in areas of law that had barely evolved for decades, some expert-level lawyers struggled. At Smith’s firm, one partner shared that having rules change at a pandemic pace required her to do something she had never done in her entire career: call a client back and say her insight no longer applied. Thus, law firm leaders may want to consider turning the volume up on the messages of agility and the growth mindset. They may also want to keep those helpful lessons and examples playing on a loop throughout the new lawyers’ careers. A steady reminder can possibly prevent lawyers from losing their confidence when something goes awry, even if it won’t happen in their immediate future.


Keeping first-year associates engaged and ensuring their development are new challenges during the COVID era. In some firms, the professional development team is combating Zoom-bie syndrome in its first-year associates by being more deliberate about mentor matching and increasing the time set aside for on-the-job training. “We want them to get to know as many of the attorneys as possible,” says a professional development (PD) expert in an AmLaw200 firm. For now, “There will be a lot of virtual coffee chats!” In other firms, more time is spent teaching new hires how to make informal one-on-one connections when not on-site. “I’m explaining how to talk to people when you can’t pass them in the hallway or knock on the door,” articulates Smith, the Yoda of virtual connectivity. Smith’s mastery stems from more than a decade of pre-COVID travel within a 14-office firm. Having the capacity to connect formally or informally in a virtual format is key during COVID and will remain useful post-pandemic.

Some law firms have also implemented new programs to support associate development. “In response to the abrupt move to a virtual workplace, we created an engagement program for our newly graduated and recent lateral associates called ‘Your Future is our Future,’” explains Kelly Druten Green, senior manager of professional development and inclusion for Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. “The participants meet virtually every other week. One of the main goals is to help our new hires learn to build relationships virtually.” Newly hired associates also learn how to apply those tactics to provide proactive client service and obtain new business.

Speaking of client service, Gene Gilmore, director of professional development at Cooley LLP, states, “Client service continues to be a team sport in a work-from-home world. Our first-year training redoubles our focus on shadowing opportunities, regular check-ins and real-time feedback. We not only address the challenges of building new relationships virtually but also the opportunities to build relationships across the firm sooner than was typical previously.” As client satisfaction is key, this focus on associate engagement cannot be overstated.

With all this focus on new ways to communicate to stay engaged, Jennifer Hollenbeck Sarhaddi, director of attorney professional development at Clark Hill PLC, reminds lawyers not to forget classic ways of connecting. There are safe ways to meet in person if you are not otherwise restricted, and the telephone is always an option.


Regardless of whether wellness was a topic of discussion at your firm before the pandemic, it now must be addressed.

At Mayer Brown, addressing health was the most significant change made on the training front during the pandemic. “We have added a number of resources, both live and on demand, that cover critical wellness topics such as stress management, balancing home schooling and work schedules, mindfulness, home office setup and the importance of individual health,” Krohn explains.

On the other hand, Dykema’s perspective on the wellness front did not change during the pandemic, but its path was brighter thanks to its prework. The firm had been offering mindfulness and health corners at all in-person events in 2019 and signed the ABA Well-Being Campaign’s seven-point pledge pre-pandemic. Early adaptation meant the firm was “so much more open to anything . . . even meditation,” Smith says. Accepting wellness practices as normal pre-pandemic meant that the culture of wellness could spread: “With everyone working from home there’s more of an appetite for it and less impact from peer pressure,” Smith articulates.

Finally, Sarhaddi believes that whether your firm is making big adjustments or not on the wellness front, a gentle reminder can go a long way: All lawyers need to be reminded to take care of themselves during this marathon. “Get outside, get away from your laptop, schedule mindful time so you can feel your best and be your best.” Cheers to you getting and keeping wellness on your firm’s priority list!

Confidence Builders

Smith describes the first-year experience as “intimidating.” Most firms instill confidence through skills training done in person. No doubt exists that these skills still need to be learned; it just might take your PD professional longer to set up the helpful experiences.

For example, at Smith’s firm, new litigators need to go through stages of a matter and then argue a motion. “Traditionally I fly them in and pair them up to get feedback from judges,” Smith explains. To provide this experience to the newest class, however, Smith had to spend time combing through the in-person curriculum to decide the most essential components. She then determined just how complicated they need to be on the video platform to get the message across.

The bottom line is that whatever your firm figures out will be way more helpful than a panel. “We already know that talking heads aren’t the best way to learn,” Smith explains. And for that reason, the time your PD leader spends reimagining your training on the skills front is time well spent.

I'm a Lawyer and I Play One on TV

Until now, presentation skills for lawyers typically only focused on in-person delivery. Now “it’s important for them to learn to be on camera and how to stand up and use appropriate body language. . . . That’s a different level of tool usage.” Adapting to shifting technology is undoubtedly critical during a pandemic, but these lessons should continue to benefit associates (and the firm overall) once the pandemic is over.

Working Remotely (AKA Virtually)

Speaking of presentations, Smith recalls how hard it was to overcome the traditional stigma associated with making them virtually. Her three-hour commute alone to her home from her main office had people “curious and skeptical.” Today, Smith believes the sense of unease was self-imposed or an outside pressure to be physically visible. “I didn’t want them to think I was goofing off, so I never traveled during business hours,” she says of her practice a decade ago. Over time, she got more comfortable and set better boundaries.

“Lawyers don’t punch a time clock. For many senior lawyers there is a lack of comfort” with the concept of working from home, she says. Having the 2020 spring break align with the start of the pandemic kept several senior people from around the firm stuck at their summer homes for weeks. Thanks to that experience up front, and having everyone go virtual for several months, “people don’t even think twice about it” when it comes to the new lawyers. Smith believes that the personal experience the pandemic forced upon them has made the seasoned lawyers “a little more open.”

And what timing! The pandemic did not just accelerate that work-from-home timeline for new hires, it also reemphasized the firm’s culture. “There’s no formal mechanism for telecommuting in place . . . you do what you need to do to get the work done,” Smith says. “That’s what’s happening now . . . we don’t have to jump through formal hoops to work away from the office. People don’t question it although now many are missing face-to-face time.”

Do Not Forget the Support System

Although in the past we may have focused on training targeted at first-years as the key acclimator for the newest class, we must go beyond that ask this year to also make asks from the entire firm on both the cultural and resource sides.

Our workplaces do not look like they did pre-pandemic. Our long-term employees do not have their footing, and our firm leaders may not have affirmed their vision for the new normal. The government and our clients may keep the ground rules changing too. Hardest of all, many of our employees, including the first-years who may have lost their summer program experience or had their new hire start date pushed back, are thinking through their essentialism.

Possibly, the two best things we can provide to this new class are the empathy of our other employees and our shareholders as well as the right technology and tools to make staying connected easy.


“Empathy is one of the most important things we can show our first-years during this strange time of working from home and being virtual,” Michele Bendekovic, director of diversity and inclusion at Bass, Berry & Sims PLC, believes. “The nervousness of starting a new job under normal circumstances is not hard to understand. Take that, times it by 100, and we might begin to understand the feelings being experienced by our incoming first-years as they try to figure out how to start their legal careers.”

Just think about your traditional expectations and then see if they hold up when you apply them to the class of 2020-2021: “We all have in our head what a first year looks like,” Smith says. “Now we can ask: Are we right?” A few examples exist regarding this professional shift in empathy.

Work from home.

Having so many working from home, including those opposed to working from home, caused a perception shift for telecommuting. The common wisdom was that young people wanted to work from home. That “they sit there in their yoga pants and put their hair up,” Smith laughs. However, many missed out in 2020. Not just on summer internship pay but on meeting their colleagues face-to-face and gaining work experience.

Bar exam setup.

Not every incoming lawyer can go to their parents’ house to study for the bar. Some have families of their own, and some live far from where they grew up without intention of returning.

The question becomes, what do we need to do to be helpful or at least avoid these blind spots? Smith predicts the 2020-2021 class will be different than those before. While some grads will still just be appreciative that they survived the bar exam, others will be more critical and have a list of improvements. What can your law firm do to address both segments from an empathy standpoint? The answer is unique to each firm and something that should be discussed by firm management and addressed with all employees.

Virtual Access and Upgrades

The challenge for now is making vital content available virtually if it is not already. Dykema’s advantage during the COVID transition was that its culture allowed it to regularly offer a virtual option for day-today training, so it could always be accessible to all offices. “Almost everything I do we’ve always done with people dialing in,” Smith explains. That is not the case for many firms, particularly those with one office.

An issue that remains for many firms is how to thoughtfully consider retreat content, which was likely only delivered in person pre-pandemic—and then to decide what can be provided in a virtual format. Again, time spent reviewing the possibilities is time well spent. A savvy law firm would say that even if some of these lessons cannot be taught virtually, the decision tree post-COVID should shift to how to use virtual components to make the overall retreat experience more compelling and memorable.

And that is the silver lining. Smith explains that there’s hope that the pandemic will provide an opportunity to mix some fresh broccoli (adult learning best practices) into our long shelf-life cheese sauce (training).

So, who is hungry? 

Jill McCall

Former ABA Director

Jill McCall was with the ABA for 15 years, including serving as director of the Center for Professional Development and the Young Lawyers Division.