Have you ever worn sweatpants with your suit jacket for a virtual meeting? Professionalism looks a lot different in our increasingly virtual legal workplace.
Looking back to 2020, we should all be proud of our profession for how quickly we adjusted to virtual workspaces. While working from home was a perk many lawyers had secretly desired for years, things like virtual hearings, video conferencing, and effective online collaborations were a little challenging to get right.
Now, nearly four years since this seismic shift occurred, remote legal consultations and virtual law firms continue to evolve.
Of course, that means that the notions of professionalism as we traditionally understood them are still shifting.
Dressing the part
Not all impacts of the virtual legal world are as serious as access to justice. Nonetheless, there are other “new norms” that continue to flame debates among legal professionals.
How we dress in a post-pandemic virtual world is among them.
We’ve all heard stories about people who forgot they were wearing shorts and stood up during a video meeting, revealing their ridiculous outfit. Aside from that, though, are we still expected to wear business attire at all when working from home?
Business suits were once the indelible uniform of the legal world.
When I first began practicing law, “casual Fridays” were just becoming a thing. Many of the old-school attorneys balked at the notion. After all, formal dress was thought to reflect an attorney’s seriousness and commitment to justice.
As Zoom meetings and virtual court sessions become the order of the day, however, many are questioning whether the conventional dress code still holds any weight.
While one study from the Harvard Business Review revealed that attendees of remote conferences prefer that participants dress casually and authentically, they also believe that formal attire signals trustworthiness and expertise – something to consider the next time you need to persuade others in a virtual environment.
Creating a professional home office
Most likely, clients and colleagues are never going to visit your home office in person. However, there are still some things to consider to make sure your environment is professional.
For example, you need to be mindful of the space that appears behind you on video calls. While it doesn’t need to be a lavish office, a tidy and organized backdrop goes a long way. Pay attention to what might be in view when you turn on your webcam.
Pets, family members, and other distractions can also show up in the background of your calls.
Most people are very tolerant of an interruption from a child, and some may even find it endearing. However, there are situations when any kind of interruption is problematic.
Your background noise can be disruptive, too.
Some things you can’t help — construction outside your window, a neighbor having a loud barbecue, or a maintenance person doing an emergency fix in the next room. These are temporary and can happen just as easily in the office.
You should do your best to create a quiet environment for work calls, though. Close your office door, tell the kids to play somewhere else, and ask your spouse to avoid vacuuming while you’re on a call.
Most webcams and laptops include some kind of background noise reduction features, which is helpful.
It’s a good idea to ask a colleague to let you know what kind of sounds come through so you can adjust accordingly.
The value of virtual to clients
With physical offices becoming less prevalent, clients are no longer ushered into plush waiting rooms, greeted by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, and provided fancy, catered lunches.
Does the lack of physical trappings lead clients to perceive their attorneys as less valuable?
The answer appears to be no.
In fact, in one study of over 1,000 law firm clients, 35% reported that they actually prefer virtual meetings to in-person conferences with their lawyers.
Keep in mind, however, that clients still value face-to-face communication. We found in our recent study on attorney competence and the client experience that 41% of legal clients prefer in-person meetings as a top choice for communication. This preference was strongest for older legal clients. (Curious about other results? Get the full report here.)
Virtual networking: hits and misses
The world of virtual networking has opened doors, but also revealed potential pitfalls.
While it’s easier than ever to connect with peers and clients globally, it’s often harder to make a good impression in a digital setting.
One bonus is that there are plenty of opportunities to connect with people over a shared interest or career goal. You’re not limited to workshops at your local bar association.
Virtual networking might feel hard, but let’s admit it: networking has always taken practice and effort.
Virtual networking takes a different kind of intentionality, though. You’re a lot less visible in a busy video conference room than you are in a crowded bar. If you want to make connections, you’ve got to reach out and do it.
Don’t be tempted to remain quiet or multi-task on work matters when you’re supposed to be paying attention. Active engagement is noticed and appreciated.
In-person networking was all about the meet-and-greet portion, but that feels awkward and forced in a digital setting. Now, the key to successful networking is participating in the chat.
Instead of quietly listening to the presenter, it’s considered professional to actively add your opinion, questions, or comments throughout the session. Presenters appreciate your active engagement because they don’t feel like they’re talking to an empty room, and you’re not at risk of interrupting since people don’t have to stop paying attention to read the chat.
As the lines between personal and professional spaces blur, the essence of professionalism is undergoing a transformation.
While some traditions (like attire) still hold significance for many, the emphasis is continually shifting towards efficiency, clarity, and results.
As the legal world continues to adapt to this new era, try to strike a balance between maintaining some of the traditions of the legal profession while still embracing the conveniences of the digital age.