Beyond the Icebreaker – Warming up the Associate Orientation

It’s almost 9:30 AM. The seats are filling up with eager new associates as orientation is about to start. There’s a bit of a nervous undercurrent, you can almost hear the doubts in the back of many minds. Do I really belong here? Am I good enough? Will I enjoy it?

Those first moments at a law firm matter. They are profoundly human moments – excitement at the start of something new, nervousness at being in a new environment with new people, fear of being ignorant or of not doing well.

Let’s be honest – much of the content covered in orientation will rapidly be forgotten. But as Maya Angelou put it so well, “people won’t forget how you made them feel.”  There is a beautiful opportunity to start off associate engagement on the right foot and set a deeper tone at the outset. With a bit of thoughtful intentionality, you can nudge the culture needle just a little bit from “professional and courteous” over to “warm and friendly.”

Get in Line!

This activity asks everyone to get in a line in alphabetical order according to something you specify, but without talking. That’s where the fun comes in – the group needs to figure out how to communicate without talking.

Here are a few ideas to things to use that make this interesting for an orientation:

Ask everyone to get in line based on the name of the department they are going to join in the firm (you may need to specify the departments in case of ambiguity). This also has the nice effect of grouping people who will work together.

Ask everyone to pick a feeling they’re experiencing and then get in line based on that feeling. Encourage everyone to be genuine but let them know they’ll be sharing the word/feeling out loud later.

Some other ideas you can use include: the name of someone they admire, a person in their life that’s important to them, the name of the town they were born in, a hobby or area of interest, or a favorite law school class.

Once everyone is in line, go down the line one by one and have each person share their word, name, or other item.

You can make it harder by prohibiting written communication or you can give them a time limit by which they have to be finished so it’s a race against the clock.

If you want to add a competitive flair, divide the group at the outset into two or more groups and have them race to get in order. There’s nothing like some lighthearted competition to get people excited.

The facilitator may choose to end the exercise at this point or can ask people for any reflections and/or share their own reflections as appropriate.

A Joy and a Fear

People are usually both nervous and excited at orientation, but we all try to conceal our feelings behind a façade. As a result, we often believe we’re the only ones feeling this way and everyone else has it together. This exercise aims to peel back that layer a bit and to gently coax out a bit more authenticity.

  1. Setup two bowls or baskets in front of the room.
  2. Have everyone write one thing they’re excited about and one thing they’re nervous about on a slip of paper and place it in the basket.
    Encourage people to be authentic and let them know this will be anonymous and no one will know who wrote what. (It is wise to explain the exercise in advance so people understand the process and can calibrate their level of authenticity accordingly.
  3. Call up people one-by-one to randomly pick out a piece of paper from the basket and read someone else’s “fear and joy” at loud.
  4. (Pause and check-in with the group as warranted.)
    Depending on the flow, it could be useful to pause periodically and ask if people relate to the fears and joys being shared. (I suggest refraining from asking if they relate to a specific one since the person who wrote that one may start comparing responses to their share v. another.)
  5. Ask people for reflections and thoughts on what was shared.
    This is a very important part of the process and helps deepen the authentic engagement. People will often share how powerful it was to see other people sharing so many of their feelings or how their perspective shifted in another important way and this reinforces the underlying process.
  6. Close the exercise with the facilitator’s reflections or messages.
    This is often a good time to close with messaging showing your understanding of the journey to becoming a professional and your investment in their success. Here’s a brief example:

“It’s completely okay to be confused for a while and to feel overwhelmed. While we expect great things from you, we know it takes years to master the craft and really feel comfortable. That’s all part of the process and we’re deeply invested in helping you get there. We encourage you to ask lots of questions – both substantive ones and process ones like how best to do something – and to lean on people more senior to you if you’re feeling nervous or lost, overwhelmed or confused. As you can see, these feelings are completely normal and appropriate.”

There is a powerful shift that usually takes place when you give people a structure like this that allows for more authenticity. People will often share in meaningful ways and this honesty is psychological oxygen for the loneliness and isolation people often feel, especially when entering new environments. The more you can build this authenticity into your culture, the more people will feel like they belong and the longer they’ll be inclined to stick around.

Need some help thinking through an orientation activity? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or grab a time on our calendar for a brainstorming session.

This is My Friend

This is an improv activity which encourages a bit of playful lightheartedness and gets people laughing and loosening up. In this game, everyone introduces the next person by giving them something to act out during their own introduction. So, for example:

“This is my friend Josh, and Josh thinks this is an amusement park.”

Josh: (excitedly) “Whoa!  I’m so excited for that roller coaster!  Oh no, the wait is so long!” Then: Hi I’m Josh, and this is my friend Martha, and she is a cat.”

Martha: “Meow, meow, I’m Martha, I have nine lives!  And this is my friend Rebecca, and she sings everything!”

Rebecca: (Singing)

And so on until everyone has had a chance.

There’s no formal closing to this activity, but it’s not a bad idea to ask people for any reflections on how their sense of comfort shifted or anything else they noticed.

Partner Personal Reflection Panel

This structure is also about encouraging authenticity, but flips the dynamic and has partners share the personal side of their work and progress, rather than the new associates. The goal is to humanize partners and to make them more relatable, while also validating the common anxieties that new (and old!) employees feel.

Use a typical panel structure with three to five panelists and one or two facilitators. The art here lies in asking the right kind of question and consciously framing the objective of the panel clearly.

Here are some good example questions:

  • How long did it take until you felt comfortable with your subject matter?
  • Were there times in your career you felt like you didn’t belong here or that you weren’t up to the job?
  • What were some difficult moments in your earlier years where you thought maybe you couldn’t hack it?
  • What was a big mistake you made early in your career?
  • What was a recent mistake you made?
  • When do you feel overwhelmed by your job?
  • How often did you feel confused and lost early in your career? How often do you feel that now?
  • Do you have difficulty shutting down and setting aside your work?
  • What are some things you love about your work?
  • Who are some of the most important people to you in your life? How do you make sure to make time for them?

Once you’re done the with the panel questions, open the floor to Q&A, but encourage participants to ask questions relating to the focus of the panel.

It is very important to emphasize that this is not about teaching skills or sharing how someone has dealt with a challenge. The entire objective is met by just having partners share authentically about difficulties that they experience or have experienced. The goal is to legitimize the fact that no one has it all figured out. Having partners talk to how they deal with a particular difficulty, can undermine this objective.

Basket of Good Wishes

This is a gentle, heartfelt exercise that has each person share a kind wish with another person in a random manner. You should explain the exercise in advance and then remind people to

  • Setup a basket or bowl in the front or middle of the room.
  • Ask everyone to write a kind wish for people in the room on two pieces of paper and place one of them in the basket (e.g., I hope that you will have a wonderfully enjoyable career, May you have make many great relationships at work, May you have deal with challenging situations wisely, May you always be happy).
  • One at a time, have people pick a slip of paper out of the basket at random and read it aloud.
  • Once it’s been read, have the person who wrote it stand up and have the writer and reader gently acknowledge each other (e.g., with a gentle bow or wave or smile, or hello)
  • Have the reader return to their seat and the next person pick a wish.

Encourage people to write with an open heart and to receive the good wish with an open heart.

Once everyone has had a turn, it’s a good idea to ask people if they have any reflections they’d like to share. People often have a hard time receiving good wishes or compliments and someone may share that or it can be wise to mention and honor that. As always, the facilitator can close the exercise with their own reflections.

Closing Thoughts

An employee orientation is a beautiful time to set the tone for a long career and influence associate’s perspective of the firm and their colleagues. By being intentional about the activities you choose and the tone you set, you can have a gentle, but significant impact, on you company and employee belonging.

I hope you enjoyed these activities and that they are effective for you. If you try any of them out, I’d love to hear about it! Please drop me a note at [email protected] with thoughts or feedback, ideas or criticisms. Our wisdom is far greater than just mine.

Need some help thinking through an orientation activity? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or grab a time on our calendar for a brainstorming session.