I recently attended a friend’s birthday party, and since my friend is a lawyer, many of the people who attended the party were attorneys as well. Naturally, many of the lawyers at the birthday party talked about the remote work policies at their offices, since numerous law firms are slowly returning to offices, and this is a topic of discussion among many legal professionals. As someone who has been self-employed for over three years now, I inquired as to why law firms would be so intent on returning to offices since remote work has been happening pretty seamlessly for years now. One of the lawyers in attendance proffered that one reason why working in an office is preferable to many firms is since it is much easier to train associates in person than through virtual means.
This was an interesting perspective that I had not given much thought to before. Most of the people advocating for a return to the office cite in-person collaboration as one of the reasons why working in an office is more preferable than remote work. Some other law firm managers convey that in-person work is important to socialization and creating a culture at a firm. However, I have not really heard about the importance of training associates in person as being one of the motivating reasons for returning to the office.
Some firms do not really invest too much time and resources in their associates. Indeed, some law firms operate under a business model of paying associates low salaries and not caring much if associates leave after spending less than a year at a firm. In addition, many other law firms focus on hiring seasoned attorneys who already have many of the experiences that they need to succeed as an associate at that firm.
However, many larger law firms invest considerable time and resources in training associates. These firms usually like to hire associates at the beginning of their careers so that the firms can begin the training process early before attorneys get used to how things operate at other firms. Law firms often invest substantial sums on summer programs so that promising law students will forge a connection with a law firm early in their careers so that law firms can get access to legal talent after the students graduate from law school.
The training process at many Biglaw shops can take years. For instance, at the Biglaw firm at which I worked, it would often be six or more years until a lawyer would take a deposition in a case. Before associates took depositions, they would be tasked with increasingly more sophisticated jobs related to depositions, such as writing deposition outlines, case summaries, and the like, and partners would assess this work product and provide advice about this critical part of litigation along the way. This ensured that when a lawyer was finally deemed fit to take a deposition according to the firm’s standards, they would have an assortment of tools in their arsenal to get the best testimony possible from a witness.
It is not always easy to train an associate remotely. Although it is easy to talk to others through remote means, it is not always easy for partners and associates to review documents together remotely, make annotations to materials, and complete other steps that are typically taken during the training process. In addition, people are less likely to be focused on training processes when this is conducted remotely, since people often have other — personal — issues with which they must contend when they work from home and not from the office.
For instance, when I was an associate in Biglaw, I had a dedicated writing mentor who would help me improve my legal research and writing skills. The writing mentor would read many pieces of my work product, and we would have a meeting to discuss the documents and ways that I could improve the work. Sometimes, we would sit in my mentor’s office for hours going over a brief and dissecting how the research and writing could be improved in the future.
Of course, Zoom calls and tracked changes can be used so that these types of exchanges between mentor and mentee can occur remotely, and many firms no doubt have carried out such activities virtually during the pandemic. However, it is easier to refer to work product and to pay attention during such training sessions that are held in person. Moreover, the mentor/mentee bond is important at many firms since it ties associates to their firm and ensures that mentees will remember the tutelage they received when it comes time for them to train the next generation of lawyers.
In the end, I am all for remote work, and I have published many articles extolling remote work throughout the pandemic. However, something is lost when attorneys work virtually on a regular basis and law firms should consider how training processes are impacted by remote work. In-person communication between mentor and mentee is important at many firms, and this might be an important consideration for law firms deciding when to bring lawyers and staff back to offices.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.