By Zack Needles for Law.com
Law firm leaders are more concerned than ever about how this extended stretch working outside the office may be hindering young lawyers’ professional development.
But for some young litigators, remote work has provided training and experience they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten this early in their careers.
Zoom fatigue is, as you’re likely already keenly aware, very real. But the ability the technology affords litigators to appear before courts anywhere in the country without having to travel has allowed law firms to get their young attorneys involved in ways that were cost- and time-prohibitive pre-pandemic.
In some instances, associates have been able to virtually sit in and observe as their more senior colleagues argued cases. In others, the young lawyers have been tapped to deliver the arguments themselves.
As remote work continues to gain popularity and fall office return plans hang in the balance thanks to the Delta variant, these examples of young lawyers learning the ropes in a virtual setting could help to provide a blueprint for professional development in a hybrid setting moving forward.
And let’s face it: even “post-pandemic” (whatever that means), firm leaders are going to need to figure out how to train up the profession’s next generation without physically sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with their associates every day.
Earlier this week, Law.com’s Avalon Zoppo reported that some law firms have been allowing their associates to lead virtual oral arguments.
As Zoppo noted, there has been a push in the legal industry in recent years to provide more opportunities for young lawyers to gain argument experience, though handing them to reins can sometimes be a difficult sell for clients.
But the pandemic may have actually helped associates’ cause in that regard, Judge Barbara Lynn of the U.S. District Court for the District of Northern Texas told Zoppo, explaining that clients seem to be more amenable to the idea when they’re not footing the often hefty bill for travel costs.
Lynn has a voluntary rule in her court that if firms send attorneys with less than seven years of experience to argue their own briefs and motions at hearings, she is more likely to grant an oral argument.
“It’s much easier to shift from one lawyer to another when you’re doing it remotely, and lawyers from different offices can appear without there being any additional expense to the client,” Lynn said. “The remote argument is not the same as live in court, but it’s a lot better than not having that opportunity at all.”
The young lawyers who have been afforded those opportunities over the past year-and-a-half say the experiences have been invaluable.
Kirkland & Ellis associate Sara Shaw Tatum, who joined the firm in March 2020 and has since delivered arguments before the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, told Zoppo the experiences taught her the importance of taking initiative in her career.
“These experiences showed me the importance of raising your hand and going outside your comfort zone,” she said. “Everybody says that, but in the moment when it is actually time to ask for an opportunity, whether it is an argument or something else, it can be intimidating. This time around, I was fortunate to have a group of mentors who really encouraged me. Going forward, I am more comfortable asking for opportunities because people reacted positively to it. You have to try new things to grow as a lawyer, and that includes being your own advocate.”
The vote of confidence from both the firm and the client that comes with being tapped to handle arguments is not likely to be lost on young lawyers either.
In her first federal appellate argument this past May, Aimee Brown, a Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison associate, led a successful challenge for Spirit Airlines to the way that the Federal Aviation Administration allocated flight authorizations at Newark Liberty International Airport (and earned a Litigator of the Week nod from Am Law Litigation Daily).
Brown, who was asked to handle the argument by veteran litigator Kannon Shanmugam, the head of Paul Weiss’ appellate practice, told Am Law Litigation Daily editor and columnist Ross Todd that she would “never forget the faith that Spirit, Kannon and the rest of our team had in me to take the lead on this.”
But, even with travel costs eliminated, clients are highly unlikely to entrust their case to a young attorney they barely know, which is why it’s imperative for law firms to make sure their young lawyers are involved at every level of an engagement. That way, the client will have a comfort level with every member of the team as the matter progresses.
Kathi Vidal, a Winston & Strawn managing partner who founded Next Generation Lawyers in 2015 to encourage diversity and inclusion in the industry, told Zoppo that the pandemic has made it easier than ever to involve young lawyers in client pitches, for example.
“By being able to present virtually, there is never a pitch where the associates cannot regularly join,” she said in an email.
Beatrice Franklin, who is in her second year as an associate at Susman Godfrey, argued this past March before the Minnesota Supreme Court for client Glacier Park Iron Ore Properties in a dispute with U.S. Steel Corp. She told Law.com’s Todd that she thinks it’s much easier for a client to take a chance on a young lawyer for the “the shinier, fancier” opportunity of oral argument if the client has seen the young lawyer in action on less glamorous tasks like brief-writing, document review and the day-to-day running of a case.
But, she added, it’s still on firms to make sure they give their clients opportunities to see their young lawyers at work.
“I think also firms have to allow clients to get to know the associates and the young lawyers, not just when it comes time to do the arguments, but to be part of trial team calls, to be part of the pitch that brings in the case,” Franklin said.
Even for those associates who may not quite be ready to argue a case on their own, the pandemic has created learning opportunities.
In January, Michele Johnson, the global chair of the litigation & trial department of Latham & Watkins, told Law.com’s Todd about the firm’s “observation deck”—a curated list of upcoming remote proceedings, including trials, arguments and motions, that Latham lawyers are involved in.
“Before the pandemic, one would have to travel wherever and watch one of our colleagues give an opening statement or cross-examine a witness, or argue a motion,” she explained. “But now, if you know about it, you can just click and log on and it’s public and you can watch or listen. And so, our fantastic staff across the country has done the work to curate that list. So every day our associates can go find something that’s in their practice group or in their geography—or not in their geography—or something they might find interesting, and click and watch it.”
Johnson said the initiative has garnered ”tons of involvement [and] engagement by our younger lawyers.”
“They certainly miss being in person and getting that one-on-one training, but this is a silver lining to be able to connect our younger lawyers with opportunities that they might not have otherwise had the chance to do,” she said.
That includes, Johnson said, allowing more young attorneys to actually get involved in remote proceedings.
“I think our junior associates are able to attend more hearings than what they have been able to in the past, and—this might be anecdotal— but I think they’ve been able to take more hearings and depositions than otherwise, because the budget would have only permitted one lawyer to travel,” she said. “But now, two or more can attend remotely and the partner can sort of second chair the associate by either being right off-camera or remotely with the associate or on IM which is a very unique trend and opportunity.”
Johnson said she’s observed clients becoming more open during the pandemic to affording young lawyers those kinds of opportunities.
“It takes commitment from the senior lawyers to be there and to put in more time to train the junior lawyers than it would to handle it yourself, for instance,” she said. ”But, when we do that the client then gains additional confidence in that junior lawyer.”
Concerns about young lawyers’ professional development in a setting that hinders, if not altogether prohibits, in-person interaction are certainly valid.
But the above examples show that innovative law firms and clients can find ways to turn the unique circumstances of the pandemic into unique opportunities for their young lawyers.
As Todd wrote this week in a column for Am Law Lit Daily: “While the pandemic has made being shoulder-to-shoulder with junior lawyers more difficult and, at times, nearly impossible, it has made observing court proceedings and getting actual opportunities to participate in them a step easier in many cases.”
Counterintuitive as it may seem, the virtual setting may be law firms’ best tool for giving their associates real-world experience.