One of my favorite podcasts is Legal Speak, produced by Charles Garner. The topics are always interesting. The guests consistently offer thought-provoking ideas and positions.

Last week’s episode was entitled Why There Will Never Be a One-Size-Fits-All Solution to the Remote Work Conundrum. The podcast consisted of an interview by Patrick Smith with Ira Coleman, chairman of the large law firm McDermott Will & Emery.

It’s important at the outset to recognize and commend Coleman and his firm on the remote work issue. Many of his opinions recognized and were sensitive to the needs of lawyers. Many of his views were nuanced and recognize the needs of associates for flexibility in their work lives. Much more than many law firms, he and his firm demonstrate forward thinking and a recognition of new work realities.

But somewhat contrary to the title, Coleman’s position seemed to be that data supports the idea that lawyers (mainly associates) who work in an office somehow perform better. Better than those associates who work more at home. 

Coleman also opined that it was important for lawyers (associates) to be “in the city,” working in the office. According to Coleman, this presence would enable associates to run into clients and other lawyers while at lunch. And that, Coleman said, was essential to getting business. He finally proclaimed that you learn better how to read a room if you are in the office. Not surprisingly, his conclusions were focused on associates, not partners. 

All these conclusions according to Coleman should just be accepted by lawyers (associates). They should “just handle the truth.” So get used to being in the office three days a week. And therein lies the rub. And the danger. No matter how well intended and data driven Coleman’s approach is, I fear his conclusions will be used by other firms to support draconian and less nuanced back to office policies. 

The truth is Coleman’s conclusions, those of other law firms and businesses, should not just be accepted without question and serious analysis.

What Data Was Relied On?

Coleman wasn’t entirely clear, for example, what data set he relied on to conclude those working in the office performed better. If he asked a bunch of older lawyers who work every day in the office and think everyone (well, associates anyway) should be in the office every day, he, of course, would get data supporting this thesis. That’s like asking a bunch of lawyers who don’t use technology if using tech is important. That data would no doubt support a conclusion that lawyers don’t need to use tech.

It’s worth asking who was asked.

There are lots of businesses that function very well with only remote workers. If you ask management of these businesses if their remote workers perform just as well than those who might work in an office I’m sure you would get a different viewpoint. So, it’s worth asking who was asked.

What Does “Perform Better” Mean?

Which, of course, begs the question: what does it mean to say one lawyer “performs better” than another one. Coleman didn’t say how this superior performance was determined. Were there objective criteria used? What were they?

By its nature, legal work is highly subjective. The danger is that’s too easy to say someone who looks like you, went to the same schools as you did, and comes from a well-regarded family performs better. That often results in a perception that white males do better. So it pays to be careful about subjective performance evaluations.

Photo by Hennie Stander on Unsplash

Beware cum hoc ego propter hoc.

Why Do Some Appear to “Perform Better?”

And while Coleman says even clients believe those working in the office do better, that too is questionable. Is it the fact that the lawyer is working in the office? Or is it that some lawyers understand client relations and service better than others? Beware cum hoc ego propter hoc.

If the data supports that lawyers in the office really perform better, why not ask: Why are they perceived to be performing better? What are the skill sets these lawyers have that impact their performance? How do we insure all lawyers have that skill set?

What About Business Development?

And what about the idea that if you’re in the city, you will randomly bump into people while you eat lunch that will give you business? That could happen. Maybe it happened in the old days. But today, it’s also likely that many of the people you might previously have bumped into are now working from home. Or that the lunch restaurant  is closed due to lack of business because so many work at home. Or that the lawyer (associates) must work at their desk through lunch to meet the punishing billable hour quotas without sacrificing needed family time.

Some Hard Truths

When you demand people work in the office, give them a reason.

Coleman’s idea that lawyers should handle the truth plays both ways. Here’s some truth that those demanding lawyers (associates) work in the office should handle. When you demand people work in the office, give them a reason. Don’t make them come to the office to do what they can do at home. Yes, Mr. Coleman, I don’t want to commute two hours, three days a week to do the same thing I would do from home.

Want associates to get new business? Want them to learn how to read a room? Teach them how systematically, not catch as catch can. 

I got lots of business in my day by going to see clients or potential clients. But I did it by systematically planning it out. By figuring out how I could be of value to them. By determining how I could show them how I could be of service. Teach associates the value of planning and demonstrating value: instead of telling associates to come to the office to sit around a lunch counter hoping lightning will strike, do some formal mentoring and training when you force them to come to the office. 

Help associates become good lawyers instead of worrying whether they are toiling away in the office.

Ask yourself the hard question, what does it mean to be a high performing lawyer. What skills do associates need to be successful? Then set up a way where associates can get these skills. Make the time in the office valuable by using it to teach these skills. Not by hoping for serendipity but by looking hard at training and doing it the right way. Help associates become good lawyers instead of worrying whether they are toiling away in the office. 

The truth is there are many associates who, for various reasons, can’t be in the office every day all day. The truth is that white males, for a variety of unfortunate reasons, are more likely to be able to be in the office the most. Figure out why those in the office do better if they do, and then help all associates get those skills. That may help you deal with the new reality of the work world and get you more diverse and better associates.

It’s time we all handled the truth. Law firms need to be sure they aren’t just deciding what they want the “truth” to be and instituting polices based on fiction.