“When a door closes another door should open, but if it doesn’t then go in through the window.”
If you’re a law student who will participate in a virtual summer program, this advice has become unexpectedly apt; your screen will now be your entry to the law firm world. You may already be a Zoom master, a Houseparty-er, or a connoisseur of video chat apps. But a work environment will pose new and unique challenges for your ability to connect with others. Depending on the length of your program, you may have less time to make your mark than you once anticipated.
Much of the advice you’ve heard about how to navigate a program in person will still apply: “Be punctual”; “There’s no such thing as a ‘draft’”; “Make sure you understand your assignments”; “Check in with the supervising attorney before spending too much time on a task”; “Treat everyone with respect”; and so on. And the process by which you complete your assignments may not change at all. You will still review and draft documents at a private desk, albeit from somewhere outside the office (with a scenic view, if you’re lucky). You will still communicate by “phone” and email.
But how do you partake in firm culture and community when you’re operating remotely? What spins does the virtual environment put on traditional advice related to the summer associate experience? In what ways might you be proactive over the summer? To help you answer these questions, we offer 10 tips for making the most of your virtual summer program.
1. Rely on Mentors and Firm Administrators for Advice and Counsel. Mentors and firm administrators want to see you succeed—especially the ones who recruited you. By now, they also have a wealth of insight about the remote working styles and communication preferences of attorneys at your firm.
Seek them out regularly. They can facilitate virtual introductions, keep you abreast of internal developments, identify and secure resources, help you develop communication strategies and work through thorny situations, help you obtain critical feedback related to your work product and virtual presence, and help you understand how to enhance your internal brand.
At Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP, we assign both partner and associate mentors to every incoming summer associate. They do everything above and will “meet” with their mentees at least weekly to help them navigate the summer.
2. Arrange Your Tech and Work Area Ahead of Time. Your current setup may or may not address your summer work needs. Have you been doing all your schoolwork on a small laptop screen? Is your internet connection finicky? When you’re in video chat sessions, is the view behind you cluttered? Does it include inappropriate content or a door that a roommate often uses? If so, consider some changes.
Most firms will send you equipment in preparation for the summer: a laptop, external monitor, headset or speakerphone, and peripherals like a mouse and keyboard. Take advantage of any offerings. If your firm will send two monitors, ask for them; you will more easily be able to compare documents or pull them up during meetings, if that’s appropriate.
If internet bandwidth is an issue, and you have the ability to upgrade, you should consider it. You’d be surprised at what you can miss when your connection freezes, or at the anxiety that an unreliable setup can cause. Even if you can’t upgrade, you should speak with the firm’s IT professionals. They can provide tips to help you squeeze the most out of your connection.
Finally, make sure that you are in an area that offers sufficient workspace, privacy, and lighting and a clean view when you’re on camera. Put your back to an uncluttered wall if you can, preferably one without bright windows; backlighting can be distracting and will make your face seem dark. You may be able to use virtual backgrounds, if they are available and appropriate.
3. Confidentiality is Key. You will undoubtedly receive instruction from your firm about printing and handling sensitive information. Most firms have related policies and guidelines. Professional responsibility rules also obligate the firm’s attorneys to protect the confidentiality of client information.
To avoid a potentially embarrassing and damaging situation, it is important that you follow any firm guidelines or instructions exactly. Also, limit the amount of documents you print. If you must print documents with sensitive information, keep them in a secure place where only you can access them. Be careful not to allow others to use your work devices; download sensitive information to person devices; leave your work machine unattended and unlocked; or discuss or review confidential information in proximity to others or while Alexa, Siri, or Google Home are “listening” (unplug related devices, to be sure).
4. Learn Your Way Around the Firm’s Intranet Resource Pages. Firm intranet pages typically offer a wealth of practically useful information. Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP’s intranet site includes space dedicated to resources for summer associates, programs and benefits related to employee well-being, and technology tips for remote workers. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the content on your firm’s intranet pages. You may uncover valuable information about the firm’s people, culture, practice areas or resources.
5. Communicate, And Then Communicate Some More. Until you are comfortable with supervisors and colleagues, you may find it hard to be communicative—about your availability, your workload, or progress on an assignment—without feeling bothersome. Err on the side, though, of being more communicative than not. The attorneys and staff with whom you work will appreciate it. Given your role and newness to the firm, they’ll cut you some slack (and offer some helpful advice) if you over-communicate.
When you provide updates, include anyone who would like to receive them. You should also give thought to the mode of communication. Sometimes email is appropriate. Other times, it is better to call to avoid multiple back-and-forths.
It will also be important to help your colleagues feel as though you are accessible. You don’t need to be chained to your desk, just responsive within a reasonable amount of time. If you have questions about what that means, consult a mentor or administrator.
6. Prepare for Virtual Meetings. A little preparation will go a long way toward helping you participate in meetings effectively. Test your sound and microphone beforehand, if you can. If you are unfamiliar with the meeting platform, you might explore the settings so that you understand how to unmute yourself and show your camera. As always, make sure that you’re dressed appropriately. It is better to be too formal than too casual. Hoodies are still a novelty accessory for some remote workers, but you should consider them off limits.
Make sure that you understand the meeting purpose. If you received an agenda and materials ahead of the meeting, be sure to review them. And check the invitee list. If you don’t recognize certain names, you might look them up. That will help you understand your role in the meeting and the broader role that attendees play in the firm.
7. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone. For you to know the firm at the end of the summer, and for the firm to know you, you will need to step out of your comfort zone. That may mean contacting people to introduce yourself and to express an interest in their work; leveraging mentors and administrators for introductions; signing up for optional programs and events, especially those with some level of interaction; picking opportune times in meetings to offer your thoughts or ideas; learning to anticipate the needs of supervising attorneys, and volunteering to help; or engaging meeting participants after a meeting to clarify an assignment or next steps.
You should also enable your webcam whenever possible. In many cases, it will be conspicuous if you do not. At the very least, you should enable your camera whenever you are in a meeting that could have occurred in person if you were in the office. That may provide others with visual cues that prompt them to invite your input. If you find your view of yourself distracting, most platforms include an option that allows you to hide it.
It can be easy to rely on the structure of a summer program to establish connections for you. But if you take some initiative, you can shape the summer in a way that you find most useful.
8. Be Mindful of Meeting Etiquette. We all know the rules for virtual meetings but some bear repeating; even seasoned attorneys occasionally violate the rules and draw unwanted attention to themselves.
If you are not speaking, mute your microphone. Also, try not to check your phone or email. That behavior can be especially conspicuous during a virtual meeting, and it can give the impression that you are distracted or uninterested. If you need to step away from your desk or move around during the meeting, you might temporarily disable your camera. Finally, make sure that the meeting platform lists your name correctly. If you need to input your name, consider providing your full name (as opposed to initials) if other attendees do not know you.
9. Diversify Your Meeting Portfolio. Over the summer, you may receive invitations to a variety of events: training programs, meetings, client calls, affinity group meetings, happy hours, etc.
Try to participate in as many as you can. That will help you maximize your exposure at the firm. It will also result in a fuller summer experience.
10. Recognize When You Need to Unplug. Virtual meetings and events can be exhausting—including the programs designed to help you manage virtual fatigue. On top of that, you will be expected to produce.
Take regular breaks to avoid burnout. Find a way to exercise—even brisk walks will do—and a change of scenery. More than you might realize, those practices will help you recharge and forge ahead.