In the past six months, Grace Fernandez graduated from Berkeley Law, took the California bar exam, and started a new job as an associate at Fenwick & West.
She did it all from her childhood bedroom in Phoenix.
“It’s definitely a surreal and unexpected change,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez’s experience isn’t unusual, as Fenwick is one of several Big Law firms to use online communications to bring on their newest batch of associates this fall. Other firms have opted to hold off first-year start dates until early 2021.
That doesn’t mean it’s been easy for human resources departments to integrate first-years, who are often fresh out of law school like Fernandez, into firms’ practices.
“There is no replacing that person-to-person interaction and the connection that comes from being face to face,” said Neha Shah Nissen, Fenwick’s chief talent officer.
Fenwick focused on new-hire needs as it developed its onboarding process over the summer, when it had to quickly pivot from in-person to online training for its summer associates, according to Nissen.
“It’s not just about getting on a Zoom,” she said. “But it was, how do we help them engage when they’re on that Zoom meeting and seeing all the squares across the screen?”
Michelle Fivel, a partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa who specializes in placing associates, said the Big Law firms that ran virtual summer programs found they went better than expected. That bodes well for the new associate classes as well, she said.
“That model proved that this can be done remotely,” Fivel said. “We’re not going to have a total lost generation of associates as far as skill sets are concerned.”
Like Fenwick, Latham & Watkins, McDermott Will & Emery, Goodwin Procter, and McGuireWoods were among firms welcoming first-year associates this fall.
For its 189 first-years, Latham is offering training in virtual lawyering, covering topics like how to conduct remote client meetings and remote depositions.
“We are also hosting a fully remote First Year Academy that will include substantive trainings, introductions to firm leadership and committees, and fun integration activities such as virtual escape room and game night,” said Tom Evans, chair of Latham’s training and career enhancement committee.
McDermott gave its 36 first-year associates the option to start either Oct. 14 or in January 2021. Thirty-two chose the fall.
The firm ran a three-day virtual orientation for first-year associates that included social activities like a scavenger hunt and chocolate tasting. The firm also held meditation and wellness sessions, according to Hannah Fabrikant, the firm’s director of professional development.
Ludia Kwon, a first-year in McDermott’s Los Angeles office, said that while remote onboarding “was never expected or ideal,” the process was “very smooth and surprisingly warm.”
As part of its programming, Goodwin Procter focused on making sure that associates had structured one-on-one time with their advisers and attorney development managers, who serve as career counselors.
“We have had to be more intentional in our approach,” said Ashley Nelson, managing director of talent acquisition, associate and professional track recruiting.
Unlike most firms with fall start dates, McGuireWoods offered its 41 first-years the option to work in the office when they started on Nov. 2.
“A vast majority” chose the in-person option, according to chief talent officer J.D. Neary.
“New associates need training and guidance, and it’s a lot more helpful in person,” Neary said. “We’ve had an influx of our lawyers coming in since the new associates started.”
The firm’s offices are cleaned regularly, and all lawyers and staff are expected to wear masks and stay six feet apart, according to Neary.
That means the firm has taken a hybrid approach to associate onboarding, offering most of its training courses online. That way associates can remain distant or watch e-learning modules from the safety of their own offices, with the door closed.
Fivel predicts that law firms will become more flexible about work-from-home arrangements once the pandemic ends, but she doesn’t expect widespread changes.
“Does that mean a firm is willing to hire someone who works 100% remotely, maybe from a different geography? We have seen some firms come to us and say, ‘We are agnostic,’” she said. “But that’s still the exception.”
Fenwick’s 28 first-year associates joined the firm Oct. 19. The associates were pre-assigned a handful of matters, according to Fernandez.
“So after orientation, we had people we could contact to get started on work,” she said.
Nissen and her team organized virtual interactive events like scavenger hunts, cooking classes, and painting classes to give the associates an opportunity to get to know each other in an informal way.
“The firm is really trying to keep its culture alive,” said Fernandez, who signed up for an art class to paint a picture of her orange tabby cat, Brad.
Fernandez said she’ll move back to California once it’s safe for the firm’s employees to go back to its Mountain View office.
Until then, she’ll be living with her family in Phoenix.
Like many recent law graduates, she said she has significant student loans that she will need to start paying back soon. Living with her parents, while earning an associate’s salary, has been one way for her to save money, Fernandez said.
“I’m thankful that the firm had us start so soon after the bar,” she said. “It’s been a tremendous relief to know that I have the income to pay back those loans when the grace period ends.”