For lawyers settled into their career journey, there can be many perks to working from home. But what about the graduates who were just getting started when Lockdown 2.0 hit?
For those in well-established legal careers, remote and hybrid working brings with it challenges and rewards, the pros and cons of which are well documented. On one hand the opportunity to dispose of the daily commute, and increased personal autonomy, is welcomed, though on the other hand burnout and home-work delineation are front and centre problems.
However, I’d like to focus on our colleagues who are new to the profession – graduate and junior lawyers. For them problems related to remote and hybrid working arrangements are magnified for many reasons. Issues include, but are not limited to, reduced learning opportunities, limited relationship building, and restricted ad-hoc support, all of which are the building blocks for any successful legal career. A further (perhaps less obvious) issue, is graduate lawyers are less likely to have the resources required for comfortable remote working. They may live in smaller quarters than their senior colleagues, or be juggling a young family, yet still need to maintain focus and productivity. Unsurprisingly, a Black Dog Institute resilience toolkit reports that law students and young lawyers are the most vulnerable cohort in the profession.
Adults learn through trial and error, direct experience, practice, consolidation, and meaningful exposure to relevant information, but these learning principles are not easily accessed in remote working circumstances. Young lawyers have reduced access to observation opportunities (often referred to as “learning by osmosis”), exposure to client meetings, ad-hoc discussion with their seniors, camaraderie building, organisational culture immersion and so on. In fact, such is their detachment that many new recruits complain that they wouldn’t recognise their colleagues if they saw them on the street.
It stands to reason that providing a well-considered induction for graduate lawyers joining under remote working conditions is a worthwhile endeavour.
Here are some considerations: organisational culture is difficult to convey when working remotely, though proactive role modelling can make all the difference. For instance, consider the “always-on” culture that remote working has produced. Whilst long working hours is a longstanding issue within the legal profession, new graduates are eager to please and will take cues from senior partners and associates as to how to structure their day. If their seniors are sending emails well into the evening, graduates are likely to follow suit. Proactively consider the messages you impart to your graduates so that you can lead by example.
We all have different work and communication styles. Some naturally prioritise tasks, only calling on others to discuss specific work content, whilst others focus on developing relationships and achieve goals by accessing their networks.
Remote working unfortunately lends itself to increased ambiguity and miscommunication, especially for less-seasoned professionals who are unfamiliar with the firm’s organisational culture. To address this, ensure clarity and structure when briefing junior lawyers including specific deadlines, format, and reporting requirements. In doing so remember to balance this with “stretch” goals (high effort, high risk goals that encourage growth) and a level of autonomy commensurate with the lawyer’s capability. In other words, collaborate (ask, don’t tell), maintain a two-way feedback loop and include regular, informal, individual and group check-ins in lieu of office kitchen conversations. These needn’t be long meetings, though they are vital in providing opportunities for relationship development, and help ensure that questions, concerns and queries are addressed early.
We all have different work and communication styles. Some naturally prioritise tasks, only calling on others to discuss specific work content, whilst others focus on developing relationships and achieve goals by accessing their networks. They prefer frequent and ongoing interactions. Neither is right or wrong, though teams function best when their members tailor their communication to differing styles. To this end, observe and explore your graduates’ working styles and agree on preferred communication modes that accommodate you both. This also applies to training courses, which now often provide several options for content delivery. Consider a combination of interactions including email, phone, online and walking meetings which can be done in person with those in your LGA or within 5kms of home (at the time of writing). A client recently conducted an induction meeting with a new lawyer while walking along the beach. Apart from discussing business, the relaxed environment helped them develop interpersonal connection and trust, arguably the main building block of any solid working relationship.
The current remote work environment has opened the door to new working norms, and fortunately there are some silver linings. Capitalise on them. Take, for example, online meetings: they lend themselves to camera-off, inconspicuous observation of seniors conducting meetings (with client consent), which is far less intrusive than in-person interaction. It illustrates that with some imagination we can use the gifts that remote working has bestowed us and, just possibly, it may even lead to some better outcomes for junior lawyers.