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Partners optimistic about development of next-gen leaders

Nearly one year ago, Lawyers Weekly spoke with BigLaw partners across the country about concerns that junior lawyers would miss out on key learning opportunities, given the then mainstreaming of WFH arrangements. Here, we check in with those partners to see how they are currently feeling about the next generation’s development.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 28 August 2023 Big Law
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In October of last year, Lawyers Weekly explored the fears that law firm leaders had about the vocational dangers of emerging practitioners working from home more often than may have been prudent for their professional development.

As Squire Patton Boggs Perth managing partner Tony Chong put it at the time, the mainstreaming of WFH arrangements was “costing the next generation of lawyers”.

“They risk missing opportunities to learn the intangible skills critical to building a successful career,” he told Lawyers Weekly last year.


“Sitting in on client meetings, sitting in on a call with the other side’s lawyers, watching a deal be hammered out – the skills required to master these parts of our work are learned observationally.

“Law is a people business, and if you’re not physically around people, you’re not learning the business.”

Where are we now?

Speaking recently, Herbert Smith Freehills partner Christine Tran reflected that the pace of development of junior lawyers’ professional skills “is still an area of concern”, given that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, subsequent lockdowns, and the emergence of hybrid working is “continuing to unveil and manifest in different ways”.

However, almost 12 months on from last year’s story, it appears that these BigLaw partners are encouraged by what they’re seeing from those coming through the ranks and, more broadly, in their workplaces.

To this end, is the capacity of the next generation of senior lawyers to be the leaders of tomorrow secure?

The development of juniors, Hamilton Locke partner Nicholas Edwards mused, remains as much a concern as ever.

“Ensuring we provide the best environment for junior lawyers and staff to thrive, find their voice and pursue their career is incumbent on partners and leaders of law firms,” he espoused.

“There was clearly concern among many, including myself, about how COVID-19, lockdowns and the aftermath could stunt the professional development of lawyers. However, I am not sure this played out as badly as people feared, especially given the active engagement the industry took to address it.

“This is not to say it is perfect, but I do think as an industry we sought to embrace the challenge and change for the better.

“I think the concern for partners now is how to get the balance right, how to accommodate the individual to the best degree possible within the confines of the role and how to ensure that, at the end of the day, junior lawyers are becoming better lawyers.”

Changes in working arrangements

Last year, Ms Tran outlined, a lot of dialogue centred around getting team members back into the office and making sure they appreciated the personal and professional benefits of working in the office versus working from home.

“That dialogue has shifted slightly,” she said. “For me, it’s about being present and focused and deliberate in each interaction and each task.

“Getting team members into the office is one element, but making sure we are properly adapting and flexing our work styles and habits to the office environment versus home environment is critical, too.”

Mr Edwards agreed that the tone of the conversation around remote working, especially over recent months, has changed.

“This has been led in part by some of the banks, but is now filtering through law firms, companies and other professional services firms. Any conversation on flexibility or the fabled ‘work/life balance’ must appreciate that it is indeed a balance – that sometimes work should take precedence over personal priorities and vice versa,” he said.

“But, in saying that, it should be a conversation, and include consideration of the needs of the individual, the team and the client when coming to a landing.”

Potential to develop key skills right now

Moray & Agnew partner Gabrielle Watts said that she is less anxious about the state of play for emerging lawyers than she was this time last year, “due largely to my observation that the more junior lawyers are beginning (particularly over the last three to six months) to recognise themselves the benefits associated with being present in person in the office, for the purposes of skill development and overall team/morale building”.

“I have seen junior lawyers’ skills in, for example, public speaking/presentation improve significantly over the last 12 months and I think that has a lot to do with moving away from ‘behind a screen’ to being face-to-face with other lawyers,” she detailed.

Flexible working arrangements, of course, remain part of the future and the challenge for firms of all stripes, Holding Redlich partner Alexandra Tighe said, is to embrace flexible work in a way that still promotes collaboration and development of professional skills for all staff, “especially so for junior lawyers”.

Such a task is not impossible, she said.

“We have not noticed any great skill gaps or slides in junior lawyers’ capacity to develop critical professional skills post-COVID-19 and flexible work. So long as there is a healthy mix of time in the office, and time working from home, the professional development of junior lawyers should not be impacted,” Ms Tighe opined.

In addition, Baker McKenzie partner Antony Rumboll pointed out “firms are currently also grappling with a softer demand environment after a number of very busy years, which might in turn provide fewer learning opportunities”.

Office returns

Movement, in recent times, back to firm offices has helped “enormously” in ensuring the development of the next generation, Mr Rumboll said.

“We have seen a really strong level of engagement by all our junior lawyers in the last year with much-improved office attendance. Junior lawyers will hopefully reap the benefits through exposure to our senior lawyers. However, they really benefit when lawyers of all levels are in the office, which also remains a focus,” he stressed.

Ms Watts supported this: “The in-office, face-to-face interactions between junior and more senior lawyers, in my view, comes with significant but perhaps initially intangible benefits such as learning different approaches to similar strategic issues, and oral/persuasive communication.

“It also sees us move away from the online CLE delivery back to the in-person delivery, which can also better assist in building professional networks.”

Mr Edwards believes that returns to the office are a good thing.

“I am still of the view that as lawyers we need to be working closely with our colleagues so we can learn, cross-pollinate ideas, and foster meaningful relationships. Many of the soft skills required to be a lawyer and indeed a leader are difficult (if not impossible) to acquire remotely. The ability to interact with new clients, read a room and engage with different audiences are key skills for all lawyers,” he said.

However, Ms Tighe warned that mandating full returns to the office may not necessarily work and firms should be wary of doing so.

“My concern is that mandating lawyers to return to the office will result in attrition,” she suggested.

“There are more senior staff who enjoy the benefits of flexible work, and have shown it works well, so mandating staff to return to the office could have the unintentional consequence of impacting staff attrition at more senior levels.”

The reality, Ms Tighe surmised, is there is “no panacea or one-size-fits-all solution”.

“Firms need to find the right balance of access to flexible work arrangements and time in the office in a way that does not stunt professional growth. It is important to bear in mind that many of our clients are still operating with flexible work arrangements, so while we can mandate a return to the office, our staff may ultimately end up spending most of their day staring at a computer screen in an online client meeting anyway,” she said.

“The real opportunities for professional development of junior lawyers are the same as they always have been, and that is on us as senior leaders to facilitate in a forward-thinking way.”

Reason for optimism moving forward?

Taking all of this into account, all BigLaw partners are optimistic at this juncture about the capacity of junior lawyers to develop into the leaders of tomorrow.

Grads coming through the ranks, Mr Rumboll noted, “bring with them an enthusiasm and intellectual rigour that will be needed as the profession changes beyond recognition in the years ahead”.

Ms Watts’ optimism is much higher than this time last year: “Although there is still some online court, for example, much has moved back to in person, and young lawyers are starting to get more advocacy experience, and assist in person/observe at significant matter events such as settlement conferences/mediations which may previously have been done via phone or online, but are now moving back to in person (at least in some matters).

“Put this together with the ability to interact/seek assistance in person from more senior lawyers while in the office, I think slowly but surely the next generation will get there.”

Ultimately, Mr Edwards mused, those coming through the ranks have “been through a seismic shift” in the workplace and been through a very hard, disjointed time over the last three years.

“That is now hopefully behind us, and what remains are positive learnings on flexibility and technology – but the fundamentals remain the same,” he advised.

“Junior lawyers should be hungry and keen to get stuck in – it is our job as leaders to provide them the opportunities and environment to do that, but ultimately it is the individual’s responsibility to drive their career.

“This is clearly still the case as I look around our office with more people in more frequently, and it is great to see the banter coming back.”

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