Although many, if not most, law firms had remote access capabilities before the COVID-19 pandemic, part and parcel of the stereotypical long workweeks for Big Law firms was the necessary face time in the office. New associates working in private practice are expected to work 80-hour weeks (or more) to meet bonus thresholds and remain on the coveted “partner track.” However, with the possibility of remote or hybrid work settings becoming more permanent, the organic benefits of in-person interactions must translate into this new atmosphere. With a shifting work environment, associates should understand the challenges associated with remote, in-person, or hybrid work settings and adjust accordingly in establishing a post-COVID-19 norm.
Effective Communication Is Key
After more than a year of remote work, law practices—private and public—accelerated the inevitable move toward the digitization of documents, pleadings, work product, and communication generally. This digitization has allowed attorneys to work from virtually anywhere. Although COVID-19 has again halted or delayed the return to in-person work arrangements in many places, others are considering a hybrid model where employees may work from home for at least some portion of the workweek.
Whether in a remote or hybrid work setting, young attorneys need to stay connected. Calling or using videoconferencing applications instead of email is a faster, more efficient way to communicate that has the added benefit of building relationships and developing soft communication skills. Text-based messages—to include email and SMS/text—can be misunderstood or misconstrued because nuance, tone, and body language do not translate well, if at all, textually. Relationships forged telephonically (or through videoconferencing), however, translate to in-person communications and help to minimize the misinterpretations inherent in textual exchanges.
Mentorship in a Remote Work Environment
Before the pandemic, law firm management generally expected new attorneys to be seen in the office. It is undeniable that face-to-face interactions with more senior, experienced attorneys have their benefits. For example, veteran attorneys can mentor newer attorneys in various subjects, including litigation, local court practices, networking, and developing a book of business, along with other tricks of the trade. This mentorship teaches newer attorneys how actually to practice law and eventually build their own practices. Learning the business of a law practice is especially important for those who did not grow up with access to a social circle encompassing a pool of potential clients. Arguably, senior attorneys’ development of younger attorneys will be diminished substantially if law firms adopt a fully (or substantially) remote model. As a result, younger attorneys will bear more individual responsibility for their development and mentorship within and beyond their legal organization.
Working away from home will allow some attorneys to encounter fewer distractions, promote focus and productivity, and create a clear delineation between professional and personal lives. A hybrid workplace, on the other hand, may result in frequent changes in work environments. The hybrid model will also not guarantee that all employees on a project will be in the office at the same time, which limits or diminishes the benefits of in-office work. Adapting to the evolving workplace is essential for new attorneys, but walking down the hallway or seeking out face-to-face interactions with more seasoned attorneys when those precious opportunities arise is vital to maintaining those relationships. Associates must understand the benefits and pitfalls of the changing work environment and take steps to seek out mentorship and build relationships accordingly.
As legal professionals continue to adapt both professionally and personally to the rise of COVID-19 variants, it is imperative to create, keep, or regain a work-life balance by unplugging when necessary. Transitioning back to the office or a hybrid environment will not be an easy task. However, networking, seeking out mentors, and taking the initiative to make in-person contact with colleagues will go a long way toward enhancing your professional and mental health.