How to digitize your summer program and foster your firm’s culture remotely.
Over the past month, firms have reacted quickly to define plans for summer associate programs amidst the uncertainty of COVID-19. Many firms are facing the reality of a virtual summer experience and the torrent of questions that come with it. How do you foster firm culture and connections virtually? How do you determine fit between the firm and summer associates when going to lunch is no longer on the table—when breakfasts or wine tastings with a practice group are no longer possible? How do you train and support summer associates from afar to ensure they are set up for success? What are the most effective ways to communicate and collaborate virtually?
The coming weeks will be important for forming the answers to these questions. Last week, we launched a three-hour facilitated brainstorming workshop—or “Design Jam”—for legal professionals to come together and create tangible strategies for digitizing the summer.
Design jams aren’t a new concept for us—they are a workshop style we have facilitated and attended in-person many times. Taking it digital was a new, exciting leap for our team that involved swapping small group tables for a detailed schedule of Zoom breakout rooms and swapping the comfort of sticky notes and easel pads for virtual docs and slides. We dedicated time for solo thinking and small group discussion, which helped create space for all participants to contribute in a virtual setting. Our ultimate goal? Participants leave with real actionable ideas and next steps.
A quick background: The structure & function of a design jam
Some readers might have participated in a design jam, but the vast majority probably haven’t participated in one virtually! There are a variety of design jam flavors out there, but the session structure we chose is composed of five stages:
- Discovery: Breakout teams brainstormed the best aspects of law firm summer programs to understand the goals and concerns that make the summer worthwhile from the perspective of all involved.
- Definition: Each team defined the problems or opportunities presented by firms digitizing their summer programs. Each team settled on a single “problem statement” to attempt to solve in the next stages.
- Ideation: With their main focus of design defined, teams brainstormed solutions, first suspending judgement to generate a volume of ideas and then working together to synthesize and winnow down to one solution to start to build.
- Prototype: Teams sketched out an early draft of what their solution could look like in action.
- Iteration: Finally, each team swapped solutions with another breakout team to give and receive feedback and, then, to improve their ideas with the benefit of that feedback.
The findings: What are the main problems and how can we solve for them?
While there were many problem statements voiced by the group, we found that a majority of the concerns centered around a handful of key themes. Here are some of the main problems these groups identified through their brainstorming, along with creative solutions for addressing them.
Problem: Fostering firm connections and culture remotely.
A majority of our participants cited concerns around how to foster connections between the summer associates and others at the firm. How do you build meaningful relationships virtually that would’ve happened organically through happy hours, office lunches, and interactions outside of planned meetings?
Solution: Create spaces that encourage organic, informal connections between summer associates and others at the firm.
Many of the solutions to this problem centered around creating space for organic interactions and mentorship. This included things like virtual office meet-and-greets, water cooler or coffee breaks, trivia or other social activities, and food delivery app gift cards for virtual lunches.
One group crafted an idea of virtual video talent shows, a sort of talent-show-meets-TikTok setup where summer associates and attorneys submit short videos of a talent, a homemade Ted Talk, or a parody skit that would then be released in intervals throughout the summer. Votes would be submitted for your favorite acts, and winners would receive a prize (e.g., gift card, charitable donation, etc.).
Problem: Training and supporting summer associates (and partners) for success with their work.
One of the highlights of the summer program is watching the associates find themselves and shed their feelings of “imposter syndrome” as they jump into real client work. Our participants cited concerns with losing key mentorship and support opportunities by going virtual. How do firms drive professional development among summers, if these traditional ways of collaborating look different?
Solution: Put more systems in place that support virtual support and mentorship.
Across the board, participating firms reported being committed to enhancing virtual mentorship and professional development for summers. Solutions included everything from hiring coaches for professional development to creating defined buddy groups for collaboration and mentorship. One design team prototyped a mentor network system that defined formal and informal layers of engagement across the firm. Each summer would be assigned a “mentor family” with multiple levels of seniority included and would meet formally to discuss topics like professionalism or how to work with firm attorneys, as well as informal check-ins like virtual walks or coffee breaks.
Problem: Communicating and collaborating effectively.
Not unique to the legal world, our design jam participants are actively facing the challenges of virtual communication and how they will effectively collaborate with summers from afar. How can firms ensure that summers are successful in their assignments and receive feedback on the work they are doing?
Solution: Create formal feedback and communication systems.
Video conferencing platform of choice aside, our design jam groups emphasized how even simple tech solutions for communication and project tracking are important to having a positive summer experience. One group designed a formal project check-in and feedback framework to help summer associates establish project expectations, schedule check-in points, track the project’s deliverables, and create space for constructive feedback.
Problem: Evaluating the summer experience, both ongoing and as a whole.
Our participants raised concerns around how to evaluate the summer associates and their experience during this unusual year. How can firms get a sense for team morale? How can they ensure summers are heard and felt?
Solution: Regular evaluation and check-ins.
A design team crafted the idea of a daily “tap-and-go” check-in to touch base with each summer associate. This included a simple question: “How did today go?” Summers would then have the option to select an emoji response that captures that day’s experience, ranging from a big smile to an angry face. The survey would then respond with follow-up questions depending on the summer’s initial response. Survey submission would be shared only with the recruiting team and would help ensure associates have a consistent, positive experience in a virtual setting.
Where do we go from here?
As firms jump into the unknown of remote summer associate programs in the coming months, these strategies will be put to the test. As the facilitators, we left feeling assured of something that lives at the core of what we do: virtual learning and collaboration work. Our virtual design jam demonstrated that we can come together to work interactively and develop creative solutions, even if we aren’t physically together. At Praktio, we’re adapting to the new virtual work reality and evolving our offerings to help groups come together collaboratively and help people learn effectively through digital tools. We’ve always been a provider of interactive, online trainings and workshops, but the design jam strengthened our belief that with the right tools and structures, digital collaboration is effective.
—Kari, Director of Design & Media
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