Isolation will reduce and younger lawyers should expect more mentoring: D'Agostino
Mental health issues from isolation will decline in 2022 as lawyers interact more frequently, predicts the managing partner of Thomson Rogers. In an exclusive interview about upcoming trends in the legal profession, municipal lawyer Stephen D’Agostino says he anticipates that the new skills lawyers learned in 2021 will become second nature and that younger employees will get more mentoring experiences.
“My hope is we’ll return to normal and 2022. it would be nice to see smiling faces in the office, as opposed to smiling masks,” D’Agostino says.
This tension between remote and on-site will be more straightforward because we have done it often, D’Agostino says. “As the virus accelerates and recedes through various waves, our firm will be back and forth, and it’ll be the natural course of things.” Retracting from the office at the beginning of the month due to recent safety measures was easy for the firm, he says, because the shift from in-person to hybrid or working from home has occurred on several occasions and seamlessly in a way that is unnoticeable to clients.
D’Agostino says that because law firms are much better at moving back and forth remotely and in person, young lawyers can expect their mentoring experiences to be much better in 2022 than last year.
Lawyers should expect a hectic year because of the pent-up demand from the last COVID wave and more pressure to move matters forward due to the courts’ backlog, D’Agostino says, which will mean more trials and discoveries in 2022. In addition, there is more activity than ever before in the municipal land tribunal, and the pandemics’ challenges have caused a greater need for family law services. “The trends will be ‘how do we deal with volume and move that volume through the system?’”
Thomson Rogers focused “on becoming better advocates using technology and dealing with clients in understanding their issues and communicating solutions in 2021,” D’Agostino says. “2021 was an extension of 2020 and focused on getting better at living in this remote environment, and we got a lot better at it.”
D’Agostino says the firm conducted family law, personal injury, medical malpractice and land tribunal hearings remotely, and executing virtual trials became part of the toolset of the modern litigation lawyer. He says that a big part of protecting clients during a pandemic is ensuring that files move along and employees are productive at pushing matters forward.
D’Agostino says he went from mainly practising land development to advising municipalities on dealing with COVID-related regulation as municipal governments focused on governance in the pandemic with a constantly changing regulatory environment.
Clients also developed various ways to thrive remotely. For example, D’Agostino says general meetings occurred early to ensure proposals meet the public needs in development projects, which is hard to do in a virtual world. He worked extensively with other professionals to help clients communicate ideas to the public, obtain input, and move development proposals forward. “In a world used to people meeting in person and sharing ideas in person, learning how to do that virtually was not easy, but also not difficult once you get into its cadence.”
Some lawyers met with clients in person at crucial file matters, and while the lawyers were steadfast, D’Agostino says clients were also resilient. “Where language or age, or other factors didn’t allow that to happen, we did what we had to do and met with people in person.”
“Some people never left the office,” he says. The importance of collegiality and reducing distractions made some lawyers maintain their office presence, and younger lawyers living alone or in smaller accommodations felt the social aspects of the office were important.
Onboarding staff was also an interesting exercise because most law firms either shed staff or stayed the same in 2020. In 2021, D’Agostino says new hires who immediately went into remote did not perform as well as employees who could physically learn the work culture files and procedures.
“I’m a big fan of law firm culture and in-person experience. I think we do better when we work as a team, and it’s easier to work when you’re in person,” he says, “but when you’re remote, you do better taking those skills with you.”
When the pandemic began to subside in 2021, all staff and lawyers at the firm ultimately returned to the office, and D’Agostino says returning was a learning experience because the management understood how to support employees and keep them centred and safe. “We had to learn how to pivot as the virus got worse and do that in a way that didn’t interfere with our clients’ files.”
Amid the pandemic, about 25 to 30 per cent of staff are in the office daily. It helps incoming employees if they begin learning in the office for a short period before adjusting to remote policies, D’Agostino says.
He says the office experience works for the firm because it has an older floor plan. “We have offices with doors, and because of our design, people feel safer. There is smaller interaction, but people are close by when they need to interact, giving someone a safe office experience and the opportunity to learn a bit about the culture before going remote.”
Stephen D'Agostino is a judge at this year's Canadian Law Awards, which recognizes the nation’s leading law firms, in-house legal teams, individuals, deals and cases over the past year.