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August 24, 2022

Taking the Lead: There Is No Substitute for Being Together

Linda A. Klein and John Hinton IV
In-person time is a worthy investment.

In-person time is a worthy investment.

Vesnaandjic / Getty Images

This past April an important event occurred in the life of our law firm. We gathered with our colleagues who are scattered across 22 offices in 11 states for an attorneys’ retreat. Because of the pandemic, we had not met in person as a firm in three years.

There is always much work to be done at these retreats, yet the unwritten goal is to strengthen the bonds of existing relationships and establish bonds with new colleagues. This year’s retreat felt more like a reunion of family members or classmates who had not seen each other in years. The handshakes, the smiles, the greetings and expressions of joy to see one another all seemed more heartfelt this year. There appeared to be both a genuine gratitude to see colleagues after a long absence and a palpable need to connect.

We have experienced a number of these moments during the past few months. Undoubtably, you have experienced them as well—meeting with a client for the first time since the pandemic began or attending a court hearing or deposition in person rather than remotely. At each of these junctures there seems to be a shared experience, often expressed in the small talk and banter among the attendees, that we haven’t been together in this setting for quite some time—indeed for far too long.

Moments formerly unremarkable now feel remarkable indeed, even gratifying. This is a signal that we should reflect on what ways we need to make the extra effort to reconnect in person with those in our professional circles for the benefit of our firms, our colleagues and ourselves. Here are a few of our observations.

In-person time is a worthy investment. When you schedule a meeting for several hundred attorneys, it is impossible to avoid conflicts. This year the retreat partially overlapped with the end of spring break for many schools. For most, trips were planned long before the retreat sched ule was announced. Leaving for vacation for a week is a sufficient challenge alone. Compounding that absence with a couple of additional days of meetings would have been too large of a burden most years. However, almost everyone in that situation decided that after a three-year hiatus, spending time with colleagues was too important to miss. The time commitment was substantial and everyone undoubtably had to work longer hours upon their return to catch up. However, everyone agreed that the benefit of spending time with colleagues to build relationships was worth the cost. It was an investment, not a burden, and it was critical to, or perhaps reflective of, the culture of the firm.

The gaps need to be backfilled with newer attorneys. Parents observed that during the pandemic, the loss of in-person classroom instruction created gaps in their children’s education. In-person instruction time is nearly irreplaceable. The same is true for newer lawyers. Most of us who have advanced beyond our early years of practice recall the time spent in the offices of our mentors and other seasoned lawyers. They answered our questions. They taught us things that we didn’t realize we needed to learn. We literally soaked up their wisdom as we talked through case strategy, research assignments, brief writing and other tasks. Those meetings were invaluable to our development as lawyers. Many newer lawyers have missed those opportunities—some altogether. Spending extra time with those lawyers at this stage is vital to their development.

We should reconsider our habits. Those who returned to their offices during the pandemic encountered new rules and expectations that fundamentally reshaped interactions with our colleagues: Close the door to your office. Wear a mask. Don’t congregate in common areas. Many of the in-person meetings that not only make for better client service but also for stronger relationships that strengthen firms stopped. Lunches with colleagues also fell by the wayside. Having those barriers in place may have caused us to lose the habit of engaging in these impromptu, but important, interactions.

On the other side of the pandemic, it is worth considering which relationships need attention and what new habits learned during the pandemic need to be curtailed so that these vital interactions can flourish. Is the office door closed most of the day? Is that out of necessity or merely out of a habit ingrained during the pandemic? What in-person meetings, formal and informal, have disappeared and need to be revived?

When the inevitable difficulties and emergencies arise during the practice of law, the people with whom we have built relationships will be the people willing to go above and beyond to support us. Those relationships matter to the health of a law firm, and they are not built over a video screen. Let’s return to building and nourishing those relationships. We would like to hear how you are doing this.

Linda A. Klein

Senior Managing Shareholder, Baker Donelson

Linda A. Klein is a past president of the ABA and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law. [email protected]

John Hinton IV

Shareholder, Baker Donelson

John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law. [email protected]

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