August8 , 2022

WFH: Consultancies fear WFH affecting soft skills in new hires

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Sujjan Talwar, cofounder and partner at Mumbai-based law firm Economic Laws Practice, reminisces about his days as a trainee in 1995. He and his fellow newcomers had to mingle with clients at a wine and cheese event that his firm, London-based Masons (now Pinsent Masons), had organised. A group of 20 trainee lawyers, including Talwar, were required to “work the room.” The next day, the trainee lawyers were told to write clients a customised message about their interaction and the senior partners judged them on the responses they had elicited.

Fast-forward to today and Talwar is worried that some of the young lawyers in his firm could be missing out on crucial networking skills, inter-personal training, and the “polish” that senior partners passed on to new hires following work-from-home policies put in place in the wake of the pandemic.

“Some of the soft skills like keeping cultural nuances in mind while talking to clients, having difficult conversations with them, or even dropping a pencil when one wants more time to think of an answer, are things young lawyers learn only through observing senior partners and leaders in action,” Talwar said.

From holding a conversation to ordering wine to breaking the ice with clients, top consultancies and law firms are increasingly realising that young executives have missed out on personal attention from senior executives that helps develop them into leaders.

Many firms are now asking youngsters used to virtual meetings to meet clients if they do not come to the office or are holding additional training sessions to make sure that the firms have a pipeline of well-rounded leaders.

“When you interact with your clients in person, you mostly build a relationship that goes beyond just work, and those relationships tend to be more symbiotic than just connecting virtually with your client for meetings,” said PwC India chairman Sanjeev Krishan.

Consulting, professional services and law firms nurture talent through an apprenticeship and mentoring model. After the coronavirus struck, the firms quickly had to develop hybrid solutions to kick-start engagements. “In the last two years, 40% of the people in the firm are new, so affiliations have been a problem for a while,” said BCG India chairman Janmejaya Sinha. “We have created systems to make sure new hires get proper guidance and mentorship. I tell my consultants to travel to build relationships, not for expertise. A face-to-face meeting is critical to building trust with clients and internal stakeholders.” All advisory businesses are focused on culture and values and these are best imbibed when the new hires see seniors living those values in their day-to-day interactions with clients and colleagues, senior executives told ET.

Top firms say that while WFH works in certain situations, the development of softer skills needs human interaction. “For a firm with a strong values-led organisational culture like ours, it’s imperative that senior lawyers ‘pay it forward’ by passing down values and best practices. This helps us maintain our competitive edge,” said Padmini Rathore, CEO, DSK Legal. “In advisory businesses, it’s critical that mentors provide guidance and help young employees make difficult decisions and explore opportunities to grow.”

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