The dawn of COVID-19 and the abrupt introduction of the nationwide lockdown shook the entire world. Most industries, especially the legal fraternity, were required to shapeshift from what they were to what they could be. I was in my second year of articles when lockdown was introduced, and I was already familiar with working from the office, in-person meetings and training sessions, as well as the ease of access to my principal and team members. I found this experience extremely beneficial, not only did it assist my learning journey and exposure to different legal matters, it also helped foster a collaborative working culture.
The in-person to virtual working transition
The transition from in-person and office working to being behind a laptop screen 24/7/365 was difficult. This transition happened when I was in my third rotation in the litigation team, a rotation I soon learnt highly dependent on in-person interactions. Remote virtual working meant the reliance on technology for tasks such as team meetings, receiving work instructions, and collaborating with team members. With this new reality, we all (in one way or the other) had to adjust to and adopt new ways of working and methods of communication, as well as the etiquette that came with it. This was not easy. However, being a new generation lawyer comes with the perks of understanding technology and having the ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances.
I realised I had to be intentional about making this new way of working work for me and my team. What became my biggest game-changer was the constant Microsoft Teams team meetings, which not only tracked work allocation, but had a social element to them (always having your camera on). This kept the spark in the teams' working relationship. The most important thing, other than learning during articles, is the ability to network and fit into a team. This was fairly easy before lockdown, however, the shapeshifting required a change in how I networked and interacted with my colleagues. I found that reaching out individually to colleagues for a chat or virtual coffee or lunch (as we would have done before) made the biggest difference – it helped us stay connected with each other. The biggest trick was the how – how to foster virtual relationships while remembering that we are in a professional setting, how to keep the team spirit going despite the busy schedules we all had – it all came down to etiquette.
Overcoming the virtual working dynamic
No-one received a set manual on how to network and engage with each other during a pandemic. We all took it a day at a time, making do with what worked for us and those around us. How I overcame the virtual working dynamic was to observe how my colleagues interacted with each other during team meetings, and I used that as a stepping stone to approach and network with them after the team meetings.
I also had to pick up my old dusty interpersonal skills and polish them for reuse. Because these skills were pre-existing, what I learnt during lockdown was now mixed with the interpersonal/in-person skills, so adjusting to hybrid working was not as difficult as one would expect. Instead, it gave me a holistic and fresh approach to surviving in a law firm, where my experience and learning may need to shapeshift from time to time.
My biggest takeaway from the past two years is that innovation and adaptability go hand in hand and, once mastered, can make a big difference in a person's career. My advice for students (law students, in particular) is to ensure that they fully understand the everchanging landscape of technology, as well as how this may impact the work we do. It is also important for students to hone their networking skills so that they are applicable for both in-person and remote working, understand the nuances that come with shapeshifting, and always remain true to themselves. Flexibility and adaptability will go a long way in making a success of your career.
Molefi is an Associate with Webber Wentzel.