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Firms must tackle the learning challenge of remote working

by Pete Riddleston | September 22, 2021
by Pete Riddleston, Learning & Quality Director, LawNet

Originally published in Solicitors Journal, October 2020

Back to school, off to university, starting training…. each autumn sees people moving on through their education and into work, but this year is like no other.  For those trainees taking up their hard-won place in a law firm, many will have found themselves being welcomed and then asked to start their training by working remotely.

In making the adjustment from university life to working life, this may seem an easier transition into the ‘real world’, albeit the ‘new normal real world’, but my biggest concern is the learning gap which such working arrangements engender and firms must tackle the challenges this brings.

So much of what we learn in our early days at work is by osmosis and emulation.  We cannot underestimate the value of the informal learning and development which happens for junior lawyers and trainees simply by working closely day to day with more senior colleagues, watching law in action, both practice and procedure.  

Equally important is being able to learn how the office works and how to engage with colleagues, or when to ask questions.  These things come through visual clues and watching the actions of others.   Similarly, the spontaneous suggestion or request to join a meeting or a conference call is less likely to happen in this environment. 

There could be a sense of being out of sight, out of mind, with remote working leading to some team members feeling isolated and nervous that they are not learning and developing at the speed they need to.  Every type of interaction, whether with clients or colleagues, will be different and there must be a higher chance that mental health issues could develop. 

Firms need to address these challenges and communication is the most powerful tool to do so, by discussing cases and work practices and sharing solutions, together with the right processes to supervise and train staff remotely.

We are seeing this play out across our member network, with firms using more peer reviews, more team meetings, more file sharing and daily calls.  They are trying to think about what would happen in the office and to mirror that with a mix of social and formal supervision, which includes time to have a personal conversation as well as a work-related one, and with partners setting time aside to be on call and available for contact by team members.  

Mentoring and buddy systems can be helpful in allowing lawyers to share concerns and problems and receive support and guidance.  Trainees and juniors need these conversations to ensure that their development takes place and as supervisor, keep checking who you have heard from and identify those who may not be communicating enough, as they may need help: lack of noise is a warning sign. 

Even if you think you have a great communication programme in place, you can always do more and make it even better. 

Alongside, a structured learning and development programme is vital to ensure lawyers develop not only the technical skills and knowledge they need, but also the resilience, adaptability and behavioural competences that will help them to work through the uncertainty of the current situation.  We are about to launch a new course for our member firms designed for lawyers in their first couple of years, together with paralegals and support staff who are starting out, covering areas such as adaptability, resilience, and understanding the business of running a law firm.  This will be through online, interactive blended learning with live workshops, recorded content and project work.  The aim is to develop behaviours and open conversation from an early stage, providing the basis for future leadership and management skills. 

Learning is deeply interwoven with a firm’s culture and those firms with a track record in building a supportive environment will be seeing pay-back now, with a strong foundation from which to recontextualise the current situation. 

Remember too, that we never stop learning throughout our career, and those entering the workplace will have new ideas and approaches that may benefit the firm, if we are listening.  This could be lost in the current way of working without clear channels for two-way communication. 

Unless firms get this right, they risk falling levels of employee engagement and, most importantly, we will be failing our newest generation of lawyers. 

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