Are Young Associates Losing Out in the Legal Industry’s 'New Normal'?

The legal industry has been surprisingly adaptable amid the COVID-19 crisis, with the majority of firms and legal departments transitioning smoothly to a remote work model. In fact, those who embraced telecommuting out of necessity soon found that it offered distinct advantages for both employers and employees, especially in terms of lowering costs and improving efficiency.

However, there is a hidden cost that comes with these positive changes. Despite the freedom and flexibility that remote work offers more experienced attorneys, it poses significant challenges for first- and second-year associates who are still cutting their teeth. It’s always been an uphill battle for junior associates to secure the time and attention of busy senior associates and partners for the purposes of training and mentoring, but office shutdowns have made it even more of a challenge, slowly eroding the collaborative work environment that has historically been integral to associates’ professional growth and development. Even if they’re not working from home, many new associates are finding themselves part of a barebones office staff, with less access to immediate support and guidance.

How Have Young Associates Been Impacted by the Shift to Remote Work?

When I was a junior litigation associate at an Am Law 100 firm, one of the more senior partners with whom I often worked would call me into his office with a red-lined memo in hand and talk me through his edits. If I had a question, I could ask then, or just walk down the hallway later and ask. These face-to-face interactions were crucial learning experiences that helped me grow and improve as an attorney—but they’re not happening as much these days. 

Instead, one-on-one guidance and mentoring have fallen by the wayside in favor of more transactional interactions between less experienced and more seasoned attorneys. Without the traditional water-cooler chats and “hellos” in the hallway, senior attorneys and partners aren’t getting to know junior associates (or their talents and capabilities) on a personal level as well as they have in the past. As a result, these associates may get overlooked for assignments as partners naturally gravitate toward attorneys with whom they are more familiar. Quieter, lower-profile associates run the risk of being lost in the shuffle altogether. 

At a particular disadvantage are new associates who may have relocated from another part of the country right before the pandemic hit. In the absence of interactive office lunches, happy-hour meetups, and team building events, they may be struggling to get to know and bond with their colleagues. This lack of personal connection can lead to a feeling of isolation that impacts both their emotional and mental well-being, as well as their job satisfaction.

What Associates Can Do to Foster Their Growth

In the current climate, junior associates are missing out on valuable interactions and have to be self-starters in order to get the beneficial experiences associates traditionally receive in the office. Thegood news is it’s still possible for young lawyers to forge strong connections with partners, senior associates, and even clients in the virtual workplace. Some strategies include:

  • Practicing regular outreach.If a first- or second-year associate is working in the office and the firm’s partners are not, it’s a good move to reach out to the partners and schedule a “get to know you” Zoom meeting—or an outside, socially distanced coffee or lunch. Associates shouldn’t wait for partners to seek them out. In this case, it’s better to be proactive and find ways to make face-time happen, virtually or not. 
  • Keeping up the communication.When an associate is not in the office, they should communicate regularly with their team via emails and phone calls to let them know what they’re working on and when they’re available for new assignments. This will help them stay top of mind with their colleagues and underscore their value to the firm.  
  • Reaching out to clients.Just as many lawyers are feeling disconnected during the pandemic, so too are clients. Instead of relying heavily on email and phone communication, young associates in conjunction with their partners should make it a point to try to get in front of clients more through video calls. This is an opportunity to build stronger relationships that will pay off down the road.
  • Staying in touch with their network.Associates should take the time to nurture connections with former classmates, colleagues, and other professional contacts through email, social media and/or LinkedIn. This is no time to slow down on networking. The seeds planted today often blossom in the future. 
  • Engaging with the broader legal community.Associates can make a name for themselves in the legal community by taking part in panel discussions, conferences, podcasts, and by writing industry articles and blogs. Being active in local bar associations or other groups can help young attorneys forge new ties and strengthen their existing connections. 

For associates starting out in the COVID-19 climate, beingproactiveis the name of the game. Young lawyers must tap into their “go-getter” spirit and get creative in finding new ways to stand out, network and get the experience to advance in their career. 

How Firms Can Support Young Associates

Pre-pandemic, law firms were fixated on attracting and retaining bright new legal talent. This ground to a halt in the early days of the pandemic before firm management saw that attorneys could adapt and work remotely on a regular basis; indeed, the legal industry proved very resilient. In fact, while cutting out commuting time and other time drains, attorneys have generally been more productive and efficient than they were previously, and many firms had record years in 2020. As such, lateral hiring has resumed at an even more elevated level than pre-pandemic. Going forward, firm leaders must take active measures to ensure this momentum is not lost, while at the same time fostering and maintaining culture and personal interactions. Keeping young associates engaged and motivated will help retention rates, requiring active approaches such as:

  • Holding virtual social events (e.g. Zoom coffee hour);
  • Planning safe in-person meetups that follow the latest COVID guidelines;
  • Reaching out regularly to support remote associates;
  • Encouraging collaboration on work assignments; and
  • Offering online sessions to onboard and train new associates.

In one aspect, junior associates have a clear advantage in the world of remote work: They know technology and they’re comfortable using it. Still, it’s not lost on them that they’re missing out on crucial face-to-face experiences—experiences that don’t always translate well to digital channels.

As the pandemic eases, law firm offices will gradually open their doors again, and some of the familiar hustle-and-bustle will resume. But there’s no denying that COVID-19 has permanently altered the legal landscape, pressing the industry further into digitization. Remote workers are likely to be more commonplace for law firms across all practice areas as firms minimize their various real estate footprints to enhance profitability. 

Ensuring that new associates get adequate training and development in the “new normal” will require effort on both sides. Newer lawyers will have to work harder to be seen and get the mentoring they need to flourish. Firms, for their part, must recognize the limitations inherent with remote work and provide ample opportunities for their young talent to make personal connections. After all, no matter how advanced technology becomes, relationships will always be the lifeblood of the legal industry.  

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