Remote working for lawyers became the norm when COVID-19 hit the U.S. in mid-March 2020 and businesses closed to comply with local stay-at-home orders. Quite a few law firms don’t expect to return to the office officially until early 2021, especially in major markets such as the Northeast and California. Many see remote working as part of law practice for the foreseeable future. In a non-scientific poll conducted by the Association of Legal Administrators in July 2020, 91% of respondents believed the changes in working practices sparked by the pandemic, including more remote working, to be permanent.
While many law firms immediately reacted to the pandemic shutdown by freezing recruitment, they soon realized that COVID-19 wasn’t blowing over quickly. For many firms, work continued unabated, albeit with a slightly different practice focus. Cautiously, the lawyer hiring freeze began to thaw and, whether laterals were hired solely via video chat and phone calls or a combination of virtual and in-person interviews, those lawyers started work remotely.
While most lawyers can be productive and efficient working outside the office, it’s difficult to maintain and pass along firm culture without interpersonal contact. This is especially challenging for new lateral lawyers who, historically, relied upon face-to-face interaction to integrate with their teams, build personal connections with colleagues, and establish mentoring relationships. Pre-COVID strategies such as social hours, lunch and coffee get-togethers, and other types of in-person meet-and-greets are out of the question. Most employers do their best to onboard their laterals remotely but, ultimately, the responsibility to build relationships with coworkers rests with the new hire.
So, what’s the lateral to do? Short answer: Be proactive. Below are seven tips to help the lateral lawyer settle in and build rapport with colleagues when starting at a new organization remotely.
1. Be proactive
Interaction must be much more intentional due to the lack of face-to-face contact. You must go above and beyond to remind people that you exist and are a valued member of the team. It’s easy to get stuck in your work-from-home bubble and fall off the radar, so it‘s vitally important to communicate strategically. Even before you start, get set up on the firm’s communications platforms, including intra-office messaging systems, so that you can use the company’s existing resources immediately to help you build connections. Check with your practice group leader to make sure you’re invited to team meetings and ensure you’re added to the right email distribution lists. Over the first few weeks or months, pick up the phone to reach out more than you typically would, quickly respond to all emails, and send regular status updates on your projects in part just to remind people that you’re there, working, and ready to participate.
2. Introduce and reintroduce yourself
After the official notice of your “arrival” is sent around the firm, follow up with a personal “hello” email to your new colleagues. Let them know how excited you are to join their team and, especially for more senior laterals, familiarize them with your expertise to maximize cross-selling opportunities. Reach out to those you’ll be working with closely and set a time to meet them individually and perhaps suggest a virtual lunch hour or other informal video chat for the group to get together after work hours.
For a while, don’t be shy about reintroducing yourself and reminding your colleagues of your name, location, and role when contacting them by email or taking part in a conference call or video meeting. Check bios on the firm’s website and LinkedIn during phone and video meetings for your first several weeks. Even better, look participants up beforehand if you know who will take part, so you can use their names.
3. Connect one on one
Create a shortlist of people you want to meet or get to know better. Invite them for a 10-20-minute virtual coffee break. Keep your virtual calls short not only out of respect for your co-worker's time, but also to minimize Zoom fatigue. (Note: If your new firm spans the country or reaches around the globe, be aware of time zones!)
Use these conversations to pose questions about your current projects, but make sure to have them describe their work, as well. Ask your new colleagues how you can help them or make their job easier and how they like to work—including how and when it’s best to reach them—so that you can collaborate effectively in the future. Also ask how they see the culture of the firm and dynamics of the practice group, and whether they can give you any insights for creating successful working relationships with members of the team. These individual conversations shouldn’t be one-offs. Try to meet with your colleagues regularly to mimic the short, informal interactions you’d normally have in an office environment.
4. Deepen your relationships
At first, most of your contacts probably will focus more on work than the sort of casual interactions that would happen spontaneously and organically in an office setting. As you get more comfortable with your new colleagues, you also can use these one-on-one meetings to get to know them on a more personal level. Without the usual opportunities to talk outside the structured meeting context that, in an office environment, connect you with the people around you, laterals must be more mindful about creating opportunities for those conversations. For example, if you find someone who is chatty, expand the conversation by asking them about themselves. If you click with a colleague during a larger meeting, invite them to a one-on-one virtual coffee chat. Build rapport by seeking shared experiences beyond the scope of work.
One of the biggest adjustments facing laterals when starting a new job remotely is translating how they normally create connections with people in-person to how they can do that remotely. The key is not to overthink it; rather, ask yourself what you would do with your coworkers in person. With some intentionality, you can translate those activities to the virtual environment.
5. Make it visual
Get to know your new colleagues via video as much as possible, rather than just by phone or email. See them and let them see you. Matching a face with a voice and a name at the bottom of a screen is helpful. Yes, do clean up and check your environment before going on camera, but don’t use an artificial Zoom background. Seeing people in their natural habitats—in their actual homes with chance glimpses of children and pets—helps people get to know and remember one another. It lets everyone be a little more human. Video meetings allow you to pick up on your colleagues’ non-verbal cues like facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. It also lets your colleagues learn your verbal style, personality, and sense of humor so they can better interpret your text-based messages in the future.
6. Learn the language
Observe and emulate how the team communicates. Each organization has a culture of its own. Often, it’s comprised of unspoken goals and norms communicated in a unique language that members of your new team already have learned to speak. It also includes the platforms of communication deemed most appropriate for various types of messages. Don't fade into the background when it comes to group meetings and conversations—if you notice co-workers discussing an issue you think you can take on, put yourself out there—but take the first few days in your new job to gauge how business messages are sent versus more personal communications. Note the tone of language used for each communications channel—email, messenger, text, video chat, and phone calls. Is it strictly formal or do people joke around? Until you can gauge the proper tenor for each type of communication, it’s a good idea to keep your tone relatively neutral. Be careful about choosing “Reply All” and avoid using too many abbreviations, jargon, slang, and emoji. Once you have a good grasp on the norms, engage away!
Also, learn each of your colleague’s preferred modes of communication. Ask, and if the other person has a strong preference for one platform, be sure to use it. Likewise, let everyone know how best to reach you. Also, ask whether they prefer to get one-off questions as they come up, or whether they would rather you collect a batch of questions before coming to them. And do they want a heads up in advance, or can you just reach out? Are there times of the day or week that they are more open to communication or, are there are scheduled times they like to do heads-down work and don’t want to be disturbed? Note all of that down for each of your colleagues and do your best to accommodate their preferences. The more you do so, the more welcoming they will be to your communications.
7. Ask lots of questions and for help
In your first few days at the new firm, be on the lookout for two types of colleagues who can be particularly helpful for a new lateral, especially in the virtual environment. The first is someone who knows how to navigate the variety of procedures to get things done in the firm. You may find that another legal professional, not just a lawyer, is particularly helpful in this regard. The second is well connected throughout the organization and can introduce you to people you need to know.
When you start a new position—especially remotely—if there is something you need, ask. People in general—especially lawyers—like to help and share their expert advice. Take advantage of that. Keep a running list of questions you asked, of whom, and when, so you can follow up and make sure nothing falls through the cracks. You can bring up unanswered questions to other coworkers, as well. In fact, sometimes it’s better to have more than one perspective on a subject before you act. And remember to thank everyone who helps you.
The above seven steps will help you build rapport when you start a job remotely. A lawyer’s ability to establish and grow professional relationships remotely, with new colleagues as well as with clients and prospects, will become increasingly important because, with or without a pandemic, the virtualization of legal work is here to stay.