Attending remote meetings with clients and colleagues has become the norm during the last two years, but what aspects of remote work are here to stay?

Michigan Law recently hosted the 2022 edition of the Pogue Panel—an annual event about the business of law and how to succeed at law firms—and three distinguished alumni returned to the Quad to discuss how to navigate a workplace that is employing a remote or hybrid format.

“The practice of law is changing dramatically as a result of the pandemic. There are so many things that we’re starting to learn about—new professional norms, new ways that offices work, new ways that practices happen,” said Ramji Kaul, ’05, assistant dean of career planning, in his opening remarks. “As people entering the profession, you have to think about how to succeed in that environment.” 

The panelists included Randy Mehrberg, ‘80, the co-managing partner of Jenner & Block in Chicago, where he also serves as co-chair of the firm’s energy practice; Kevyn Orr, ‘83, the partner-in-charge of U.S. offices at Jones Day, who is based in Washington, D.C., and specializes in bankruptcy and crisis management; and Damali Sahu, ‘99, a member at Bodman in Detroit who serves on the executive committee and practices mainly in the corporate space, with a focus on finance and banking related to technology and life science companies. The panel was moderated by Professor Robert Hirshon, ‘73, the Frank G. Millard Professor from Practice.

Hirshon opened the discussion by asking the panelists about what changes driven by the pandemic will remain in place for the long term. Orr—who attended the panel remotely—noted that most firms are likely to retain some level of remote flexibility, driven at least in part by clients who are realizing the cost savings and efficiencies associated with remote work. But within firms, he said, an entirely-remote environment poses challenges, particularly as it relates to training and assessing junior associates. 

“There is a risk that some of the skill set that we look for [in our young associates]—your ability to interact personally, your ability to assess credibility, your ability to know a retreat line when you’re sitting across negotiation for transactional practices, your ability to assess the position of a government agency when doing regulatory or enforcement—those are human intelligence elements that you have to learn over a period of time,” Orr said. “I think there’s going to be a mix to a degree, and we are anticipating that this is a virtual generation and some of it is going to be here to stay. But some of it by necessity is going to have to be addressed in a different way, and we’ll have to get back to a new normal at some point [with more in person interaction].”

Sahu noted that mentoring and culture building are particularly challenging when colleagues are working from home. Bodman adjusted its remote work policies throughout the pandemic as conditions changed, and Sahu said that they are continuing to experiment with different hybrid approaches. One potential format they are considering is requiring members of each practice group to come into the office on the same day, which will help encourage people to bond and get to know each other in person, while retaining some level of flexible remote work. 

“It’s very hard to build culture if you’re not together, and one of the ways we transfer culture is by being together,” Sahu said. “There are benefits to continuing to do things remotely, but I think that very quickly most firms’ expectations will be that people be physically together. It’s good for the firm, it’s good for the attorneys, and you get a better work product for your client because collaboration is easier.”

When conditions permit remote work, Mehrberg shed light on the new norms of professionalism. “To the extent that you are remote, don’t go off camera. Don’t multitask and do email while there’s a meeting going on,” he said. “Our clients and our colleagues expect your participation, your engagement, your involvement, and it’s really off-putting when you go off camera.” 

When adjusting to a remote or hybrid office setting, Mehrberg said that it’s important not to lose sight of the many different ways that lawyers need to work together, and to be available to clients regardless of working circumstances. “We have 1,000 different people at our firm, and 1,000 different perspectives as to what we should do, and the most important thing is to be cognizant of that and remember that it’s not just your perspective,” says Mehrberg. “You need to understand and address the different needs of clients, colleagues, mentors, and mentees when working remotely.”

But ultimately, Mehrberg told the assembled students, being in person at least some of the time is critical to forging the professional relationships that help lawyers learn and grow. “Office culture is really important—we’re not a bunch of subcontractors,” he said. “We work closely together to learn from each other and to provide the best results for our clients.” He also pointed out that chance encounters at the office can have unexpected benefits. Early in his career, he was walking the halls and bumped into a partner who needed assistance with a brief they were working on—that auspicious run-in led to Mehrberg working on a Supreme Court case as a first-year associate. 

However law firms adjust their office policies in the coming years, all the panelists said that aspiring lawyers should focus on the work and delivering valuable service to clients and to the partners they are working with. They also emphasized the need to stay agile and flexible, both in practice area and more broadly, because the business of law is always changing. “That’s why we call it the practice of law—it’s never been called the perfection of law, or the success of law. It’s been called the practice of law because we’re practicing,” Orr said. “And the current environment is changing how we traditionally do that because we’re still an apprenticeship practice. That’s what we do.”

The Richard W. Pogue Law Leaders Panel is sponsored by the Office of Development and Alumni Relations annually, through a special fund created by Richard W. Pogue, ‘53, senior adviser at Jones Day.