As the Covid pandemic finally (hopefully) begins to wind down, 2023 may be the year law firms will need to reach more definite decisions about remote work.
Certainly, law firms have been grabbling with this thorny issue for some time. And policies have been in flux as the pandemic ebbed and flowed. Also, the increased legal workload and shortage of lawyers to handle that load may have forced firms to somewhat reluctantly throw in the towel. They began to let lawyers and associates work where and when they wanted. But when the hot legal market began to cool, firms began to do an about face and require lawyers to be in the office, at least some of the time. But should that be certain days of the week, like Tuesday through Thursday? Should it be every day? Should it be left to the discretion of individual lawyers? Practice groups?
Management needs to think carefully about why and when it wants lawyers in the office and why lawyers, particularly younger lawyers, so embrace remote work.
It is hard to believe that remote work is not here to stay. As the pandemic made clear, technology allows lawyers to work remotely and be just as productive, if not more so, than working in the office. And there are clear benefits, at least to lawyers, from working from home. A good policy takes into account firm needs, firm culture, and the needs and wants of its lawyers. So any analysis of remote policies should start with management appreciating the new reality. Management needs to think carefully about why and when it wants lawyers in the office and why lawyers, particularly younger lawyers, so embrace remote work.
First, two really bad reasons to require lawyers to be in the office. Some firms and partners want associates back in the office to ensure they are working.
But this ignores the fact that productivity either was the same or improved during the pandemic days of remote work. And it ignores that most associates are hard workers who don’t need supervision to ensure they are working. After all, they graduated with top grades at top law schools. Most of them know what it takes and want desperately to succeed. Firms should respect their commitment and not force them back into the office just to have them there.
Secondly, there remains the notion among some that associates need to be in the office because that’s how we have always done things. If that’s the reason, I suggest you think your associate retention policy.
Why Require Lawyers to Be in the Office?
One main argument for requiring associates to be in the office for some fixed period is to ensure proper training. The theory is that firms and partners can only properly train with in-office face time. The opportunity for precious water cooler encounters that make you a good lawyer.
But the truth is, without more structured training programs, those encounters are not robust or consistent enough to make sure all associates have the same opportunity for good training.
I worked in a big firm for a long time. Most of the time, I just wanted to get my work done and satisfy my billable hour quota so I could go home and have some family time. I didn’t have much time to hang out at water coolers waiting for wisdom to be handed down from on high. Training by happenstance is not an effective training strategy. Nor is it a sound reason to require associates to be in the office.
If the goal is adequate training, a firm must focus on creating structured training programs and not rely on having people in the office for chance encounters. It needs to set up more formal training programs at certain times on certain days and then require associates to be in the office on those days. Better training and a coherent policy.
Another good reason for wanting lawyers—both partners and associates—in the office is that some work just gets done better when people are together. That’s undoubtedly true, but too often policies aren’t designed around this motive. If they were, then practice groups would set guidelines for their respective groups, and partners managing cases and projects would set expectations for their direct reports. One-size-fits-all is simply not consistent with this motivation.
What Lawyers Really Want
Firms should recognize that what most lawyers, particularly associates, want when it comes to remote work is not just being at home. It’s the flexibility and independence that remote work provides. The ability to adjust the time to do work to meet personal and family needs. The autonomy that remote work offers when there is no need to be in the office. And, of course, the time savings from not being forced to commute.
Most associates are okay with being in the office when it’s needed. Most understand that some work needs to be done with people present. What they don’t like is being forced into the office for little reason.
Most associates are okay with being in the office when it’s needed. Most understand that some work needs to be done with people present. What they don’t like is being forced into the office for little reason. They don’t like being required to be in the office just to have a Zoom call with associates in their separate offices and a partner at his beach house. They aren’t dumb.
They want to be able to work from home when necessary and to work in the office when there is a legitimate reason to. Requiring them to be in the office on set days, for example, often does not meet that goal. Being in the office just because it’s Tuesday versus Monday is arbitrary and seems less motivated by a desire to accomplish in-person work and training than the desire to monitor. I’m not aware of any evidence showing that more time is spent at water coolers on Tuesdays than Mondays.
So pushing an arbitrary return to the office for associates will lead to frustration and increased dissatisfaction. When you demand associates work upwards of 2400 hours a year to advance, the least you can do is recognize their needs and desires to have at least a modicum of control over their lives. To do otherwise leads to less respect for the vaunted “culture.”
Six Tips for A Sound Remote Work Policy
So given all this, what should a firm do? Here are some suggestions:
Make sure you have a good reason for demanding associates come to the office. Don’t just make them be there to be there. Have structured training programs on in-office days, for example.
Allow associates to have some choice and control about returning to the office. Most will make the right decisions; if they don’t, weed them out. After all, firms have little trouble weeding out associates who don’t fulfill other work obligations. Most associates have not gotten where they are because they need close monitoring to prevent sloughing off.
Place more control with practice groups and individual partners leading case teams. They know best when the work requires people to be in the office.
Have expectations for partners as well as associates. If you embrace flexibility and individual decision making, make sure the partner honors that and doesn’t just pay lip service to it.
Be transparent. If you will require associates to be present every day, make sure everyone knows that. When you recruit, make sure everyone knows that. If you are going to be flexible, announce that too. But make sure your advancement is true to your policy: don’t penalize associates that work from home when the firm ostensibly allows it.
Whatever your policy is, make it consistent with your culture. Don’t say we value independence and flexibility when you don’t. Don’t say we value in-person office time and then let some work remotely and others not. Some firms want lawyers who can make individual choices and are okay with living and working with a more flexible arrangement. Other firms can’t stomach that: they should hire people who want more structure. Either way, say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t have secret unwritten rules.
Firms will need to face this issue in 2023 and will have to make some decisions. And the decisions need not be the same for every firm. So how should firms answer the remote work conundrum? If firms believe in their culture, they should let their culture and strategic planning govern how they answer this question. And once they answer it, they should trumpet that answer to those they want to hire.
Bottom line: recognize why you want people in the office and promulgate your reasoning. Recognize what associates want and try to accommodate them when you can. Weed out those who abuse your system instead of making arbitrary rules for everyone. Remote work isn’t going away, so deal with it from a needs-based analysis.
Thanks to PLI for publishing this article. The article has been published in the PLI Chronicle: Insights and Perspectives for the Legal Community,https://plus.pli.edu.