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Legal professionals working at home, mentorship and working from home

by Bibi Siew & Heidi Fagalde on December 5, 2023

3 Big Challenges of Mentorship When Working From Home

While remote work does offer flexibility and have created a chance for junior lawyers to achieve a better work-life balance, they are also in danger of facing a lack of good, quality mentors that can usually only be found in-office. In recent years, the increasing adoption of remote work arrangements has placed a strain on mentorship programs within the legal industry. This has impacted junior lawyers' access to invaluable expertise and guidance that just isn't found in textbooks. While mentors often offer instruction and correction, they often also help junior lawyers navigate through tough cultural and political landscapes of the company or industry.

The Importance of Mentorship in a Law Firms

Mentorship is the backbone of professional development in law firms. It involves the transfer of knowledge, skills, and wisdom from experienced lawyers (mentors) to their less experienced counterparts (mentees). According to PracticePro, having multiple mentors can give junior associates multiple opportunities and benefits such as: higher job satisfaction, better perceived career success, a sense of real social value to their work and even better earnings. Having a mentor is paramount to any new legal professional if they want to succeed. In traditional office settings, mentorship happens organically as senior and junior lawyers share physical space. This allows for natural engagement, casual conversations amongst peers and more senior associates and the ability to work more closely on cases. With the rise of remote work however, the landscape of mentorship has shifted, bringing unique challenges to the forefront.

In our 2022 Legal Survey, approximately 55% of legal professionals say that increasing training and mentorship are crucial to a firm's overall success. While more senior legal professionals may believe that junior lawyers and law students may value flexibility and remote work more, we find that, in our junior survey [link to lead magnet if it's available], mentorship usually ranks higher. We asked students what would be important to them when considering future employment opportunities. We found that 55% of law students prioritise quality mentorship as the most beneficial factor for enhancing their employability, even more than networking or regular evaluations. Additionally, 41% of young legal professionals in our survey emphasise the importance of mentors' presence and quality when evaluating future employment prospects, ranking it above work flexibility which was at 25.9%.

Even with remote work on the rise and the want for flexibility, students and new legal professionals understand that having a mentor will be paramount to their growth and success. As we embrace the evolving landscape of work-from-home, three distinct hurdles stand out:

3 Challenges of Mentorship in a Remote Law Firm

  1. Limited Face-to-Face Interaction

    The lack of face-to-face can create strain on both the mentor and mentee who are trying to establish a meaningful relationship with one another. Mentors should understand their mentees' career objectives, weaknesses, and strengths to provide relevant guidance. While virtual meetings like ZOOM or phone calls are options, they may introduce communication barriers and feel overly formal for legal professionals as most of these platforms are used for meetings and lectures. To foster a successful mentor-mentee relationship, building rapport is essential. Both mentors and mentees should feel secure and at ease when sharing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In face-to-face interactions, it's more straightforward to convey and interpret non-verbal cues, facilitating the rapport-building process. Without this rapport, the relationship breaks apart.

    Remote work also restricts the opportunity for crucial observational learning that is integral to a mentorship relationship. In a traditional office setting, junior lawyers have the chance to witness their mentors in action, both inside and outside the courtroom. In many remote work environments, the primary mode of connection is through platforms like Zoom, which, while serving its purpose, falls short in facilitating more impactful mentoring experiences. In-person interactions allow junior and senior associates to collaborate in ways that are often far more instructive than what online collaboration can provide. For instance, when a junior associate can be present in the room during a senior associate's deposition, they can fully immerse themselves in and learn the nuanced aspects that can be challenging to discern in a digital setting.

  2. Communication Barriers

    Remote work often relies on digital communication tools, such as email, video conferencing, and messaging apps. While these tools are effective, they may not fully replicate the nuances of in-person communication, making it challenging to convey complex legal concepts or provide detailed feedback. Being in a courtroom and sitting next to a client is very different from watching or being on a computer screen. We've all heard the stories of virtual court hearings that have gone awry from inappropriate usernames to a cat filter that was impossible to turn off. Virtual court hearings can be riddled by connectivity problems, internet issues, and various other technical challenges. It goes without saying that such issues are absent in a traditional courtroom setting. However, this is not the only challenge virtual courtrooms face. The tone and atmosphere of the room can be hard to discern over video and can even be more difficult if it's just voice or only text. Misunderstandings can become much more prevalent and can cause frustration.

    Another communication barrier faced by emerging legal professionals is the absence of real-time feedback from their mentors. In face-to-face interactions, conversations flow smoothly with immediate responses. However, as mentors and mentees no longer share physical space, this relationship can become frustrating due to reduced opportunities for collaboration and the scarcity of real-time feedback.

  3. Onboarding Challenges

    Onboarding challenges in mentorship become more pronounced when working remotely. When new legal professionals join a law firm or a legal department, they typically go through an onboarding process that involves learning about the organisation's culture, procedures and practices. In a traditional office, new hires have the opportunity to absorb company culture through direct observation and interaction with colleagues and if any assistance is needed, it's usually given right away. When working remotely, this exposure is limited and remote workers miss out on the informal interactions, shared experiences and office dynamics that contribute to understanding company culture.

    The absence of in-person training sessions can impact the depth and effectiveness of onboarding, as it may be more challenging to ensure that new hires receive comprehensive training remotely. Additionally, it can hinder the accessibility and availability of mentors, as they may be dealing with their own remote work challenges. This, in turn, may lead to delayed responses and less immediate support for new hires.

4 Strategies to Overcome Remote Mentorship Challenges

  1. Structured Mentorship Programs
    Establishing formal mentorship programs will be crucial to fostering a thriving work environment. These programs should outline expectations, goals and responsibilities of both the mentors and the mentees. Clear expectations and defined goals empower individuals to actively engage in their mentorship journey, ensuring that the exchange of expertise and guidance is meaningful and impactful.
  2. Regular Virtual Check-Ins

    Human errors in legal documents or records can lead to costly consequences, including legal malpractice claims and reputational damage. Specialised automation software minimises the risk of errors by ensuring consistent and accurate data entry and document management. This not only safeguards the firm's reputation but also saves the time and resources required to rectify mistakes.

    Virtual mentorship, on the other hand, provides greater flexibility in terms of when and where to meet and communicate. This flexibility allows mentors and mentees to coordinate schedules that suit them both. However, unlike in-person meetings, virtual meetings can be easy to miss and sometimes harder to reschedule. Creating a reliable schedule is the key to ensure these meetings are not missed by either party.

    For a virtual meeting to succeed it is important that both parties be invested. It may be easier to stay focused meeting in-person as the person is right in front of you. Much like an in-person meeting, minimise distractions and interruptions during these virtual meetings or calls. This approach can help recreate some of the personal interactions that are sometimes lost in remote work and enable more profound and meaningful discussions.

  3. Encourage Digital Collaboration

    Cultivate a culture of digital collaboration by leveraging project management and collaboration tools that simplify the sharing of work, feedback, and updates on cases. For instance, Google Docs is a valuable tool that enables seamless document collaboration, while platforms like ZOOM and various other software offer the option to create virtual rooms where you can share your screen.

    By adopting such tools, mentees can observe mentors in action as they draft documents or handle cases. This approach not only helps mentees stay closely connected and engaged with their mentors but also provides them with the opportunity to ask questions and receive real-time feedback, enhancing the learning experience.

  4. Virtual Networking and Social Events

    A modern approach to mentorship involves embracing remote mentorship. While traditional mentorship programs continue to thrive, there's also room for growth in a virtual setting. Enhance your virtual mentorship initiatives with software solutions like "Together," which facilitates connections between mentors and mentees, even if they work in different organisations within the same field.

    These virtual mentorship events create opportunities for aspiring legal professionals, supporting them on their path to success. Virtual mentorship offers mentees the chance to engage with multiple mentors in a single setting, providing a rich and valuable experience for newcomers to the legal profession.

    Both traditional and virtual mentorship programs cater to the individual needs of each mentee, offering a low-stress environment, introducing mentees to the organisation's culture, and demonstrating the organisation's commitment to the growth and well-being of its members.

Conclusion

While remote work offers numerous opportunities for legal professionals, the traditional in-person mentor-mentee communication remains a fundamental aspect at many firms. This factor should be carefully weighed by law firms when considering whether to bring both experienced and new legal professionals back to the physical office.

The above solutions are just the beginning.

With the correct strategies and encouragement, both mentors and mentees can overcome the challenges of being remote. Mentorship continues to be a crucial element in the legal profession and a major point of contention when it comes to working remotely. However, adapting to these realities are imperative to ensure that the next generation of lawyers receives the necessary guidance and support to excel in their careers.

Cover of our Navigating the New Norm, A Guide to Better Remote Work Dynamics document

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