6 Tips For Training During The Pandemic
What are some best practices for teaching lawyers and law students in a remote environment?
Welcome to Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can subscribe by clicking on the button below.
Does anyone think that remote learning is a good thing? Remote work has many fans; remote learning, not so much. Zach and I are very lucky because Harlan has been able to attend preschool in person since last September. Fellow parents whose children attend online classes seem to find them as worthwhile as an afternoon at the DMV.
But that’s elementary school. What about in the legal profession?
While many lawyers in Biglaw have enjoyed the flexibility of virtual work—and many firms have enjoyed impressive profitability during the pandemic—law firm leaders worry a lot about how to train and integrate new lawyers remotely. In the past, Biglaw handled training through an apprenticeship system of sorts, with formal training taking a backseat to new lawyers simply learning by spending many (many, many) hours in close proximity to experienced lawyers. Associates listened to partners speak on conference calls, watched them conduct client meetings, and sat next to them as they marked up briefs or contracts—and that’s how associates learned.
But what happens when junior lawyers go weeks or months without seeing their more-senior colleagues in person? Or maybe the associates never meet their partners in person?
Adding to this concern is how much Biglaw firms have hired and grown during the pandemic. How do you train and onboard lawyers when they’re joining remotely? How do you teach them the skills they need to know? How do you inculcate in them your firm’s unique culture?
These issues have been very much on the mind of Caitlin Vaughn, director of learning and professional development at Goodwin.
“We have been extraordinarily busy and successful in this environment, and so we have hired more than 200 lawyers since the start of the calendar year,” Vaughn told me. “Plus we have junior associates who were here for maybe a year before everything went remote, plus we have our summer associates. How do we train and integrate them in a virtual environment? It’s incredibly challenging.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with a number of folks who, like Vaughn, are involved in training and teaching lawyers and law students during these difficult times. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised—and impressed—by how well the legal profession has risen to the challenge.
Based on my conversations, here are six steps that law firms and schools should consider when it comes to training in the pandemic.
1. Be intentional about communication.
When everyone is working out of the same office, you don’t need to put much thought into communication. It happens organically, when lawyers bump into each other in the hallway or the cafeteria. These chance encounters at the water cooler help form and solidify social bonds between colleagues—and sometimes they lead to innovation and breakthroughs (of the good kind, not the Covid kind).
When everyone is working remotely, you must make a deliberate effort to promote communication, thereby replicating the casual interactions that naturally arise in an office environment. For this reason, many smaller firms and corporate legal teams have scheduled regular check-in meetings, even though they felt no need to do so pre-pandemic. At Biglaw firms, some practice groups now hold regular meetings, and partners, especially those in management, make regular calls to their associates to see how they’re doing—the virtual equivalent of dropping by someone’s office.
Frederick “Rick” Jenney, a partner turned senior counsel at Morrison & Foerster, now oversees attorney training in MoFo's corporate department. He gave me a good example of intentional communication that he implemented during the pandemic.
“A few months ago, a senior associate told me that the junior associates were driving her crazy by making all these little mistakes,” he said. “If we were still working out of an office, she could just walk down the hall and explain. The mistakes—and the fixes—would just circulate organically.”
“But that’s not possible during the pandemic,” Jenney explained. “So I sent around an email asking partners and senior associates for their pet peeves—things like juniors asking lots of little questions instead of bunching them, or not including the document number at the bottom of a draft so I can go into the document myself. I compiled these complaints, and then I sent around a document called ‘Menagerie of Pet Peeves.’ The juniors have found it very helpful.”
Here’s another example of intentional communication. At the Organizations and Transactions Clinic at Stanford Law School, second- and third-year law students learn the practice of corporate and transactional law by serving established nonprofit corporations. After the clinic went virtual last spring, the faculty members who oversee the clinic, Jay Mitchell and Michelle Sonu, instituted a daily “good morning check-in call.”
“The idea of a check-in call was inspired by my fifth grader’s own ‘homeroom’ experience,” Sonu told me. “The call runs ten minutes to half an hour, with people just going around the room and talking, more about personal than work matters. For example, someone could pose a question: what’s your favorite Netflix show these days?”
“It’s all about fostering community and connection,” she said. “These are the types of connections that people would normally make outside the classroom. We just have to be more thoughtful in creating such situations today.”
2. Flip the classroom.
In the traditional model of teaching, a speaker stands at the front of the room and imparts information to the attendees. The Biglaw version of this involves a partner lecturing on a particular topic to a conference room full of associates while they munch on free sandwiches and cookies.
In the “flipped classroom” model, students absorb information by completing readings or watching videos in advance of the training. Then, during “class time,” they focus on live problem-solving, often working in teams. Studies have shown that this approach—by transforming students from passive recipients of information into active participants in the educational process—increases engagement and learning.
“As people who study adult learning, we know that lecture has never really worked that well as a way of conveying knowledge,” said Caitlin Vaughn of Goodwin. “And it really doesn’t work in the virtual environment, where there’s even less of a personal connection.”
How has Goodwin revamped training during the pandemic? As Vaughn explained to me, the firm has doubled down on experiential learning, in which students learn through hands-on experience, and coupled it with using small-group cohorts, in which students work in teams to solve a problem collaboratively.
Hotshot, the digital-learning company founded by Practical Law Company alums Ian Nelson and Chris Wedgeworth in 2014, works with Goodwin and many other Am Law 100 firms on their lawyer training. During the pandemic, Hotshot has helped its clients flip the classroom and integrate experiential learning into training.
Co-founder Ian Nelson outlined for me an approach taken by many of Hotshot’s client firms. Ahead of a training session, associates learn the fundamentals of a topic by reviewing written materials and watching short presentations from Hotshot’s library of more than 600 instructional videos. When the associates get together with each other and the senior lawyers running the session, everyone enters class with a shared base of knowledge, and class time gets spent on discussing hypotheticals, fielding questions, and having breakout sessions in which associates work together to solve a previously prepared problem or hypo. This allows associates not just to learn the material, but also to meet their fellow associates and build relationships—something that would otherwise be difficult to do in a remote environment.
“Good teaching of any type, especially good training for some of the complicated things we do as transactional lawyers, has to be interactive,” said Rick Jenney of MoFo. “If you were studying to become a surgeon, you’d need to learn how to cut and sew. As lawyers, we cut and paste, not cut and sew—but we need to think of contract drafting as a skill, not a knowledge base.”
“And for skills, training needs to be hands-on,” he continued. “If you’re trying to learn a skill, you can’t just read about it or sit through a lecture. It’s like learning to play the piano: you need to get your hands on the keys. It’s the same thing with drafting: you need to get your hands on the keys.”
Jenney described to me a contract-drafting exercise that he used successfully at MoFo for summer and then first-year associates, involving the preparation of a purchase and sale agreement. The training began with Jenney giving a PowerPoint presentation explaining in general how you’d approach drafting such a contract. Then he gave the associates a 12-page template, along with the term sheets for this particular deal, and asked them to draw up the contract.
How did Jenney put together the template? He took an actual 12-page contract, copied it, and then inserted lots of errors—like setting forth a defined term that’s never used in the contract, using a capitalized term that’s never defined, or using inconsistent terms to refer to the same thing (e.g., “governmental approval” versus “government approval”).
Jenney had the associates go through the contract by themselves, seeing what mistakes they could find individually. Then he put them into breakout rooms and had them work together with their peers, to see what they could come up with if they worked together. No individual found more than 70 percent of the mistakes, but once put into groups, they’d catch around 95 percent of them. Then he’d give them the answer key, allowing them to learn from what they missed.
Jenney was impressed by how much the associates learned during this flipped-classroom training. And the associates enjoyed it much more than listening to a lecture on contract drafting.
“The value of interactivity in training is not news,” Jenney said. “But the pandemic has only reinforced for us how superior this approach is—and it’s the kind of training that we’re going to do more of at MoFo, even after the pandemic.”
3. Embrace just-in-time learning.
One thing we’ve learned during the pandemic is how artificial schedules can be in a shared office environment. With folks now working remotely, they can get work done on their own time, in a manner that lets them manage their time most efficiently and balance their professional and personal obligations. And as long as the work gets done in time, does it really matter when in the day the lawyer does it?
Now think of the traditional approach to Biglaw training, in which certain subjects are set to be taught at certain times, depending on the schedules of the partners doing the training. For example, all corporate associates might be required to troop into a conference room for a presentation on SPAC deals at a specific day and time, simply because that’s when the partner can do it.
But during the pandemic, as Ian Nelson of Hotshot explained, many firms are waking up to the benefits of just-in-time learning. In this individualized, student-focused approach, students access training on a topic if and when they need it. Under this model, associates can learn about SPAC transactions when they actually need to learn about them—say, because they’ve just been assigned to a SPAC merger. This keeps the material fresh in their minds since they reviewed it “just in time,” as opposed to months ago when they first started at the firm.
“One lasting takeaway from this pandemic period is that people want on-demand training in small bites,” said Rick Jenney of MoFo, citing Hotshot’s short and informative videos as an example. “They don’t want to sit in a conference room for an hour and hear about one topic”—which may or may not be relevant to what they’re currently working on.
4. Stay open to new technologies and new ways of doing things.
The biggest and most obvious change to training in the pandemic has been the shift from live presentations to videoconferencing—most often through Zoom, but sometimes through other platforms like Microsoft Teams or Cisco Webex. And despite their limits—the technology has gotten very good, but it’s still not the same as meeting in person—remote platforms have some advantages.
One advantage of Zoom, highlighted for me by Caitlin Vaughn of Goodwin, is its fairness. Before the pandemic, a multi-office training would involve a live speaker in one office, with other offices joining remotely. During the pandemic, everyone participates remotely, putting everyone on equal footing.
“Welcome to the magic world of Zoom, where things are much more equitable,” Vaughn told me. “We used to have trainings where one conference room would get the actual speaker, and everyone else would be in steerage. We won’t be going back to that world of haves and have-nots.”
Another plus of using Zoom is how it facilitates the asking of questions, leading to broader participation.
“When you’re all physically in a conference room, sometimes nobody wants to raise their hand,” said Rick Jenney of MoFo. “On a Zoom call, sometimes it’s easier for people to ask questions.”
“I also teach classes at Georgetown Law, where many of my students are international students, and English isn’t their first language,” he added. “Sometimes it’s easier for them to ask questions using the Zoom chat function compared to when everyone is sitting in class.”
Michelle Sonu of Stanford Law agreed.
“There’s a different rhythm in Zoom,” she said. “You get used to awkward silences. You can use the chat function to raise points or ask questions. On average, I think that introverts are speaking up a bit more than they might have before.”
Another technological tool that Sonu and her students started using during the pandemic: Slack, the popular collaboration platform used widely outside the legal profession (and increasingly within it). For example, they created a #watercooler channel for posting memes, pandemic haircut selfies, and inside jokes—another way of fostering connections in a virtual world.
Caitlin "Cat" Moon, director of innovation design for the Program on Law and Innovation at Vanderbilt Law School, also started using Slack for class communications during the pandemic. As she told Law.com, using Slack exposes students to a tool that’s much more like what they’d use in the real world.
“This even predated Covid,” Moon said, “but I think Covid has accelerated that interest in leveraging technology for those dual purposes, to improve the pedagogical experiences and also to expose students to the technology and kinds of tools they will use in their practice.”
Another interesting technology that firms are using in training: games. Gamification is taking over the world right now, so it should come as no surprise that it’s making its way into lawyer training.
In addition to working with Hotshot, Goodwin uses technology from Abilitie, a company that develops team-based simulation competitions—aka training games. Abilitie offers a gamified learning platform for law firms that teaches finance and accounting to incoming associates. [UPDATE (6:15 p.m.): The preceding paragraph was edited to clarify that Abilitie did not create the game specifically for Goodwin, but did customize an existing program for law firms, for which Goodwin was a beta tester and early adopter.]
The associates get put together in teams of four and “play” the game, in which they serve as the management of a company and make various business decisions, such as whether to launch a new business line, whether to buy or lease a facility, or whether to settle with or litigate against a “patent troll.” Each decision the team makes flows through the company financial statements, and each team can then compare its performance to those of other teams.
The game-based training has been a huge success at Goodwin. It has helped new associates understand complicated financial and accounting concepts, it has developed teamwork and camaraderie among the associates—and it’s just plain fun.
“The associates just love it,” Vaughn told me. “They have even asked if they can play individual versions of the game.”
5. Listen to your students.
Biglaw has traditionally been a hierarchical, top-down environment, and this has been reflected in its training. But during the pandemic, many senior lawyers have been listening more to their junior colleagues—and learning from them.
Two of the most valuable changes to the Stanford transactional law clinic—the agenda and format for the good-morning call, and the integration of Slack—came from students, Michelle Sonu told me.
“The attitude we’ve taken here at the clinic during this time is that we’re all in this together, and we will make mistakes,” she said. “We ask the students for ideas, and we give them choices. It was something we were already doing, but now we’re doing it way more than before.”
6. Let people learn by doing.
During the pandemic, law firms and schools have gained a greater appreciation for experiential learning, in which students learn from doing hands-on work in a training setting. But some firms have gone beyond this and allowed their associates to learn through real-world experience.
Opportunities for younger lawyers to get on-their-feet experience—or maybe, to put it more accurately, in-their-chair-on-Zoom experience—have been easier to obtain in certain cases during the pandemic. In recent pieces for Law.com, Avalon Zoppo and Ross Todd gave some examples:
Kyle Lyons-Burke, Sean Mirski, and several other associates at Arnold & Porter have argued before multiple federal appellate courts in the past year. In one week in December, the firm had six associates argue eight appeals in four different circuits, including one en banc.
Aimee Brown of Paul Weiss argued a major case for Spirit Airlines—and won a nice victory before the D.C. Circuit, for which she won Lawyer of the Week honors back in May.
Beatrice Franklin of Susman Godfrey has had multiple oral arguments during the pandemic, including arguments before New York’s Appellate Division and the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Sara Shaw Taum, an associate at Kirkland & Ellis, got an oral argument in federal court in Connecticut after jokingly suggesting that she handle the argument—and having the partner and client take her seriously.
What about the pandemic is driving these increased opportunities for associates? Chief Judge Barbara Lynn (N.D. Tex.) suggested to Law.com that if clients are no longer paying for lawyers to travel to a proceeding, perhaps they might be more open to an associate covering an argument.
Judge Lynn is also helping to advance the ball on this front. She has stated that in her court, if firms send lawyers 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.
Looking back over these six tips, something jumped out at me: they apply to all good training, pandemic or no pandemic. But for whatever reason, it took a global crisis to help us to appreciate some of these points. As Rick Jenney of MoFo put it, “I think we’ve discovered a lot of things that people who are professional educators and experts in pedagogy have known for years—even if some of it is stuff that we sort of backed into.”
Training most often arises as an issue in the context of teaching law students, summer associates, and junior associates. But the best lawyers are always learning, and improvements in training and teaching will benefit lawyers at all levels of seniority.
Take Continuing Legal Education (CLE), which can sometimes be viewed as a tick-the-box exercise. Today the digital-learning company Hotshot announced that it will start offering CLE across the country, meaning that lawyers at varying levels of seniority can watch short Hotshot videos on topics of their choice, whenever and wherever they want—and get CLE credit for it. To mark the launch of its CLE program, Hotshot is offering free, unlimited access to its platform through October 15.
“The pandemic has made firms focus more than ever on training, not just for junior lawyers but for senior lawyers as well,” said Hotshot’s Ian Nelson. “We hope that giving lawyers CLE for their time spent learning via short videos is that much more of an incentive for them to engage with the content. It’s the best of both worlds—short videos designed for learning that also award CLE.”
“This new environment, despite its many challenges, has led to all sorts of advances in how we teach lawyers and law students,” Nelson said. “We are at least ten years ahead of where we would have been in lawyer training if this had not happened.”
Hanging out at the New Jersey DMV is what Zach and I will be doing on Saturday, to try and switch over our New York driver’s licenses to our new home state. Wish us luck!
Can I just say how much I love Biglaw conference-room cookies? I have sampled them at many different firms in many different cities over the years, and they’re remarkably consistent—they all taste like they come from the same bakery, even though they obviously don’t—and they are all surprisingly delicious.
Thanks for reading Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at email@example.com, and you can share this post or subscribe to Original Jurisdiction using the buttons below.
Relatable on so many levels (not least of all the DMV!), thanks for the insight here, David!