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Training from home – how can trainee lawyers use technology to make an impact remotely?

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Last year I was 30 minutes into a settlement call with a particularly difficult litigant in person on the other side. The client had given a ballpark figure for settlement and the claimant, one of the client’s customers, was a couple of zeros away from what I could offer. It was going nowhere.

“I’m really sorry, but this conversation isn’t productive for either of us. Let’s end the call now and I’ll set out my client’s offer in an email so that you can consider it further.” The claimant accepted the offer a few hours later.

One of the most valuable skills I have learnt during my training contract is how to refocus an unproductive call or meeting. This isn’t something that can be taught via a legal textbook or on a professional skills course. In fact, I had heard one of my supervising associates say “this conversation isn’t productive, let’s end it here” on a call the previous week.

This is learning by immersion. Just from being around the lawyers at my firm, I have learnt how to network, how to pitch an idea, how to negotiate, how to collaborate, and how to solve a problem. Equally, a significant number of the ways I have made a positive impact at my firm have been in person: a suggestion at a team meeting, offering a hand after walking past someone drowning in documents, or pointing out an article that could be sent to a client.

So much of the traditional training experience is centred on sitting a few feet away from experienced supervisors. In 2020, firms have suddenly found themselves training their junior lawyers remotely. Trainees are at risk of becoming out of sight and out of mind.

Many junior lawyers have been asking for truly remote, agile working for years. It brings law firms in line with the way their clients work and the way juniors expect them to work. But with supervisors now at the end of a video call, potentially in another city altogether, technology is now one of the most meaningful ways trainees can make a difference at their firm. So how can trainees use technology to make an impact, and how can their firms support them to do so?

For trainee lawyers:

1. Become innovators, not bystanders.

Law firms are notoriously slow at introducing technology to better serve their clients. A few years ago, no one would raise an eyebrow at a trainee being asked to fax (yes, fax) something to the court. If you know a way your team could be doing something more efficiently, say so. Your supervisor asks you to collate documents on a USB drive? Suggest a secure document sharing site. Receive a document with handwritten amends from your supervisor? Suggest they use comments next time.

2. Don’t be afraid to question the status quo.

I spent months at the start of my legal career silently watching a colleague print every email they received without exception (including diary invites) before questioning them as to why. “This is the way my supervisor did it.” I am always amazed at how quickly junior lawyers accept inefficient working practices just because “this is the way it has always been done” and then adopt the inefficiencies themselves. Question outdated ways of working and encourage your team to follow suit.

3. Link up with the firm’s IT team and stay in touch.

Get to know your firm’s IT team and let them know that you are keen to be top of the list to hear about new tech products the firm is considering trialling. Volunteer yourself to be part of any trial group and give thorough feedback. Check in with the IT team on a regular basis so you know what projects are coming up and how you can be involved.

4.Become an expert in the systems your firm already has and share your knowledge.

While Microsoft Word has been the go-to word processing software for decades, huge numbers of lawyers (juniors included) do not know how to make full use of it. Don’t let your M&A supervisor scroll back and forth between the definitions page and the body of the contract – teach them how to use split window view. If you see your litigation supervisor insert the same wording into a settlement agreement over and over again, show them how to use quick parts.

For law firms:

1. Talk about technology from the bottom up.

Question whether the email-printing and fax-sending supervisor should be the first to be consulted about innovation at your firm. A senior lawyer who is an expert in their legal field won’t necessarily be an expert in legal innovation. Trainees are exposed to inefficient working practices and poor adoption of technology throughout their training. They also move around the firm through seat rotations so have an excellent picture of the working practices of the firm as a whole. They are best placed to know what you could be doing better when it comes to technology – so ask them.

2. Think about the demographic.

A large proportion of my trainee intake (me included) are members of “generation rent”. Many of us are working from house shares – think six people trying to work from one kitchen table. We don’t have home offices and we almost certainly do not have printers, so make sure you are having regular conversations with your trainees about how you can support them to work remotely.

3. Make face to face contact worthwhile.

Don’t forget that many trainees will be relying on public transport to get to work. Not only is this a much greater health risk than it was at the start of the year, but it is also really expensive. There is nothing more disheartening than spending £20 on a train ticket only to find that all of your supervisors are in all day internal meetings and away from their desks. If you ask your trainee to come to the office, make sure it is for a specific purpose and make the time to have meaningful in person contact with them.

Sophie Hannaway

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