Instead of overthinking and overanalyzing associate return to office policies, why not let associates decide where and when they should work based on what needs to be done, the type of work they are doing and the needs and demands of the client and the partner with whom they are working?
Lots of chatter recently about how big law firms and, to a lesser extent, in-house legal departments should manage the return of their associates to the office as the pandemic ebbs. Should everyone be “strongly encouraged” to return to work every day (wink, wink, nod, nod)? Should the policy be work in the office so many days per week? Per month? And one firm, in its benevolence, says it will allow associates to work one whole week at home per year. Per year.
The GC of one major company, Morgan Stanley, even insists that its outside lawyers must work from the office. (have to wonder how will MS lawyers plan to police this.) This GC has convinced himself that his outside lawyers will somehow produce better results when they are in the office. What, the work the last 15 months has been substandard? Not timely done? Morgan Stanley has gone so far as to mandate NO “critical” meetings via Zoom; they must be in person. Guess that means Morgan Stanley will gladly pay standard per hour billing rates for lawyers to spend 3 hours traveling for a half-hour meeting.
So firms are stewing. Wringing their lily white hands
So firms are wringing their lily white hands. Some firms have announced policies only to retract them when there’s an uproar. Others flounder around with individual partners pontificating about the claimed advantage of working exclusively from the office. (One partner in an AmLaw 100 firm presumably with a straight face said “there’s more to being a lawyer than simply the capacity to bill 2,000 hours a year” in an effort to justify a return to the office).What firm leadership, typically composed of older white men, really seems to want is that their associates have their noses to the grindstone at the office all day, every day. Nights and weekends included. Ahh, the good old days.
Of course, part of the reason for working in the office in those days was that all the materials you needed to work were there. So unless you got a U-Haul truck to take your work home, you needed to be at the office to get it done.
That’s no longer the case. But truth be known: the claim that working in the office work is better persists, in part, because older partners want associates to have the same unpleasant experiences they had.
Younger lawyers relish the flexibility of doing the work when and where it’s most convenient for them
On the other hand, younger lawyers relish the flexibility of doing the work when and where it’s most convenient for them. Avoiding lengthy commute times. Working in ways that allow them to spend more time with family and experience a better quality of life. (Yes, I know, there is the “always-on” issue that working at home generates. But I don’t think firms want their associates back in the office full time for their mental health).
The real dilemma with which firms are struggling is caused not so much by their goal to make associates happier. The conundrum for law firms stems from the fact that there is more work to be done than associates to do it. So if firms or legal departments don’t provide the flexibility associates want, they may vote with their feet. They will flock to firms that provide the working conditions associates prefer.
So for once, firms can’t just wholly dictate working conditions. Hence the wailing and gnashing of teeth over what the policies should be. Poor babies.
A Simple Solution
But here’s a novel suggestion. Instead of overthinking and overanalyzing it, why not let associates decide where they should work based on what needs to be done? Based on the type of work they are doing? Based on the needs (and in Morgan Stanley’s case, demands) of the client and the partner with whom they are working.
Most associates in large firms have excelled for 12 years of elementary and high school. They have overachieved in 4 years of college, have graduated at the top of their classes after three long years in the best law schools in the country. Do you think these young people don’t know how to get shit done? That they require being watched to make sure they aren’t slacking? Do you think these associates won’t do what it takes to get their work done at their job in the best manner possible? They have a pretty good track record of doing great work on their own.
There are good reasons associates will want to be in to be in the office at least some of the time. There’s the chance to meet with partners. The camaraderie with others.The exchange of ideas. And the possibility of greater learning. Being able to separate work and home. But this doesn’t mean they have to meet some specified schedule or percentage of time in the office. These are grown women and men. They are capable of making their own work, career, and for that matter, health decisions.
Firms will find that most associates will be in the office when they need to be there. Most of them will know when it’s ok and even better to work from home. And those who don’t? They likely won’t succeed anyway, but not because they are working from home. It’s because they don’t exercise good judgment about servicing clients and partners. Working from home—or not– isn’t going to change that.
But What About The Water Coolers
But, firm leadership says, what about the water coolers? To be a good lawyer, associates need the chance to bump into partners at the water cooler to receive pearls of wisdom from on high. But the reality is that most lawyers who bill by the hour don’t hang out at water coolers. They are too busy working in their offices. Behind closed doors.
Then there’s the notion associates can’t become good lawyers without being trained as an apprentice. In the office at all times.
But let’s face it: most training programs in law firms are abysmal if they exist at all. They are happenstance at best. Few firms even define what they are training to. What does it mean to be a “good lawyer”? What skills do you need? How do you get them?
If you want to spend time on something, spend time on this. Figure out what skills you want young associates to have, and then make sure they get them. That’s a whole lot better than coming up with a bunch of rules that associates will resent and do little other than give you a sense of power.
Good Work, Timely Done
Good work. Timely done. That should be the work from home policy. Not rules for rule’s sake that seeks to show the associates who’s in charge. Not rules designed to enforce an unbalanced work and home life just because that’s what us old guys had to endure.
Yes, freedom to work remotely is a change and we don’t like change. But sometimes change is good.