- Remember how tough your first years as a lawyer were? Now imagine starting during the pandemic.
While COVID-19 has affected every lawyer, none may be more adversely impacted than those that are just starting. Not only has working remotely or on a limited in-person basis created many unique challenges for the most junior members of our profession, but it also may prevent more senior members from recognizing and responding to unanticipated issues related to working remotely, issues that would be more readily recognized, if not prevented in the first place, when working in-person. More senior practitioners must support young attorneys and provide them with the tools for success in the post-pandemic world, which starts with recognizing the issues and implementing changes to make up for the opportunities lost or diminished over the last two years.
I was nearly a year and a half into practice when I received an email from my firm stating that on Monday, March 16, 2020, we would begin temporarily working from home. Like many, I expected that this would last for a couple of weeks. It is hard to believe that just over two years have elapsed since then.
At that time, I was intensely involved in ongoing projects such that I always had more than enough to do—I was spending much less time knocking on more senior attorneys’ doors asking for work than I had in my early days. Further, my colleagues and I were well-acquainted and stayed in touch throughout the days, weeks, and months of quarantine, and while we missed each other, we were still able to support each other and continue our relationships, even if it was only virtually. Besides my relationships with those in my firm, I also had ongoing relationships with other practitioners, including other young attorneys, through the professional organizations I joined since I started to practice in 2018.
But I was one of the lucky ones—I could rely on my in-office experience and the relationships I built pre-pandemic to carry me through the unexpected remote experience. However, the timing was far less opportune for countless numbers of other attorneys with only a matter of months in office, if any. For the sake of this article, let’s call them “Pandemic Attorneys.” With most of the pandemic-related shutdowns beginning around March 2020, the Pandemic Attorneys began to practice just before, or even worse, in the middle of the pandemic, and despite some degree of a “return to normal,” still continue to face significant challenges due to the two-year “shut down.” More senior attorneys must be considerate of this fact, both for the sake of our proteges and the success of our practice groups, departments, and firms.
One of the professional organizations I mentioned above is my impetus for writing this article. I am the chair of the Young Lawyers’ Section of the Delaware State Bar Association, and with the recent ceremonies to swear in new attorneys across the country, it seemed to be an appropriate time to consider the issues that face these Pandemic Attorneys, wherever they may be. My goal is to illuminate some of the issues facing Pandemic Attorneys and to provide senior attorneys some insight as to how to improve the situation for Pandemic Attorneys.
Before I continue, I want to make it clear that Pandemic Attorneys are no less capable or driven than any other new attorneys that came before them. In fact, many have had to overcome significant obstacles and remain determined despite minimal hands-on experience. Indeed, many newly minted Pandemic Attorneys began their practice without ever setting foot in their office, meeting few, if any, of their colleagues in person. Many Pandemic Attorneys finished law school and sat for the bar examination, all isolated and remote. But with those hurdles in the past, Pandemic Attorneys continue to face many unique challenges—as if starting the practice of law were not challenging enough.
At the heart of the issue is that the pandemic has made so many things, including those in the practice of law, remote. The pandemic affected almost every aspect of attorneys’ lives, including work-from-home mandates, remote hearings and depositions, virtual networking, etc. Despite some degree of a return to the office for some attorneys, many practice groups are still remote or distant from what they once were, with a less consistent in-office presence and increased distance for those in-person interactions that do occur. And it appears some practice groups will remain remote forever, turning what appeared to be temporary into the permanent, monumental change that occurred with little to no planning or forethought. The reality is that the means to protect against the spread of infectious diseases are inherently contrary to how many young attorneys developed previously—sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a more senior attorney, receiving comments, collaborating face-to-face.
While a Pandemic Attorney’s academic abilities are self-evident from graduating from law school and passing a bar examination, their practical ability to effectively and efficiently complete assignments, manage numerous competing obligations, and effectively communicate is less developed. Further, remote work with instruction and oversight limited to that which can occur via phone calls, video chats, or emails, can act as a barrier to young attorneys asking follow-up questions out of fear of appearing unprepared, burdensome, or underqualified. This is a significant departure from the past, when a young lawyer could walk over to any number of colleagues’ offices to see if they were busy and ask for help or guidance. The ability to roam the office and ask others to share their insight and experience on an issue; to brainstorm and discuss problems, are critical learning mechanisms in an attorney’s early career. When I started, I was told by more senior attorneys that I would learn some of my most valuable lessons in the hallways, observing my colleagues, and they were correct.
The ability to foster and grow relationships is a crucial skill for any successful attorney. However, working remotely limits the development of relationships, skills, and leadership that would typically develop in an in-person setting. For example, getting to know one’s colleagues builds confidence and develops a rapport among office members. Without such opportunities for more casual lunches, chats at the water cooler, and after-work happy hours, it is hard to develop the kind of working relationship that was previously typical.
Additionally, the pandemic created significant hurdles to mentoring. When social distancing mandates were in place, it was easy to consider mentoring as more of a burden than a benefit, if it was considered at all. Instead of connecting in person on day one, these mentor-mentee opportunities were adjourned, potentially indefinitely. While the advent and adoption of virtual meeting applications may help some, this still requires a significant degree of initiative from both parties.
Every Pandemic Attorney’s experience, like any new attorney’s experience, is different, and there is no single answer to the issues discussed above, except, perhaps, to be proactive and consider:
Consider that Pandemic Attorneys, despite a year or two in practice, may have had far fewer opportunities—learning, performance, social, and otherwise—than would be typical. More senior attorneys can help bridge this gap by making up for the lost opportunities through extra mentoring, leadership, and education. Because Pandemic Attorneys may not have the kind of in-person rapport with you as past junior attorneys did, you may need to be more proactive and encourage your accessibility in detail. Instead of saying, “my door is always open,” offer more specific ways in which you can assist, such as “message me if you are struggling with a problem,” “let’s discuss your current assignment,” or “let me know if you are confused so that I can help you better understand.” Or, instead of asking if a Pandemic Attorney wants or needs help (they will likely shy away so as to not “be a burden” or seem “weak”), make the decision on your own and set up a time to meet and chat.
Consider that you may have to provide what in the past may have been considered “remedial” education as offices reopen and practices return to “normal,” because Pandemic Attorneys never knew “normal,” and will need to have various standard operating procedures explained and reinforced. Instead of getting frustrated that the Pandemic Attorney is behind, be proactive and ensure that they are exposed and educated as necessary. This task can even be delegated, with your oversight, to more junior attorneys or staff members. Pandemic Attorneys, like other rookie attorneys, don’t know what they don’t know, so it will be up to you and others with more experience to fill those gaps.
Consider that while you may be dusting off some cobwebs as you transition from video hearings back to a live courtroom or live depositions or mediations, such experiences will be a first for many Pandemic Attorneys. Even someone who observed or even participated in many of these sessions remotely may need to be brought up to speed on formalities once such events are fully in-person.
Consider that for most Pandemic Attorneys a return to in-office, in-person work was a continued hope or promise, but for those that are continuing to work from home additional support may be necessary to help them better adapt to staying remote. It may be disappointing and concerning for those Pandemic Attorneys who expected to be working like a “normal attorney” would typically work “soon.” But if that soon is turning into never, the well-being of some Pandemic Attorneys, and therefore your practice group, may depend on you intervening to help them adapt and overcome. Instead of continuing to delay implementing support programs that would have occurred in-office, it will be imperative to redouble such efforts in the remote setting. For those returning to the office in a hybrid model, senior attorneys must coordinate with Pandemic Attorneys to make the most out of their time spent in the office. Just being present in the office is not going to benefit Pandemic Attorneys if no one else is there with them on those days when they work in person. And as thoroughly detailed in this article, Pandemic Attorneys need more than just proximity, they need proactive interaction and engagement. This is definitely a “making up for lost time” scenario.
Consider that these Pandemic Attorneys have faced tremendous challenges and are trying to do their best, even though it may be frustrating for you that they are not always meeting expectations. Comparing Pandemic Attorneys, at this point, to where you perceive a junior attorney should be is an unfair comparison considering the benefits new attorneys experienced before the pandemic. But, as stated above, Pandemic Attorneys have proven to be determined against unprecedented odds and will surely step up to the needs of our ever-evolving practice. How quickly and successfully will depend, in part, on how proactive senior attorneys are in this process.
Collectively, making such considerations and more will get Pandemic Attorneys up to speed, improve the strength of relationships within your practice group and reverse the deficits brought on by the pandemic. The pandemic and its lingering effects may serve as an important reminder about the development of our junior colleagues, and how a strong, well-rounded practice group makes for a more successful practice. As one parting consideration when working with any Pandemic Attorney, I encourage you to put yourself in their shoes and think about your first months and years in practice—then introduce the current challenges into the scenario. We already have so much on our plates but helping our most junior attorneys cannot be overlooked. The short-term effort will deliver long-term benefits for our colleagues, our practice groups, and ourselves. If nothing else, assisting juniors is in our own best interest. While every firm, and even practice group, will take different approaches in their return to the office, senior attorneys must take a proactive approach as we respond to these issues. If not, we, like the Pandemic Attorneys, will suffer as a result.