They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Matthew 23:4
Like so many things, whether you love or hate remote work depends on how you look at it. Do you look at the remote work phenomenon and see multiple problems? Do you pine for the days when everyone had to come to the office? Or so you see opportunity?
One person and one law firm that looks for the opportunities remote work holds is J.Y. Miller and Husch Blackwell. Miller described the firm’s approach to remote work and laid out these advantages in a recent LegalSpeak podcast.
He also discussed what Husch is doing to take maximum advantage of the virtual office concept. Miller, the co-managing partner of Husch Blackwell’s virtual office, was interviewed by Alaina Lancaster.
Husch Blackwell is a national law firm with 21 brick and mortar offices. It also has a formalized virtual office, which actually has a name: The Link. Launched in 2020, The Link now includes more lawyers than those who work in the firm’s physical offices. The Link has 200 lawyers and 400 legal professionals working from homes in 28 states and Washington, D.C.
Most law firms and lawyers focus on the real and perceived disadvantages of remote work and virtual offices. This focus compels them to draw up draconian and inflexible return to office demands. On the other hand, Husch views the virtual office as an opportunity.
Miller made an obvious but stunning point. What’s most important and valuable to most of us is not our work or career but our family. Standard work in the office policies create inflexibility and require things like lengthy commuting. These policies minimize the time we spend doing that which we believe most valuable–spending time with loved ones. Prioritize work long enough, most of us forget how important our families are.
Having a virtual office and creating the flexibility of remote work, on the other hand, maximizes the opportunity to have more time with those who are most valuable to us. I know that because, thanks to being able to work from home in the early 90s, I got to spend that time with my family. I got to meet my kids at the bus stop most days. I got to have dinner with them. I know how valuable that was.
Yet, that very simple fact seems to be forgotten by most managing lawyers for whatever reason.
Indeed, providing more opportunities to maximize family time is the right thing to do. But Miller makes the excellent point that allowing people to spend more time with their families makes them happier and more content. This, in turn, says Miller, results in more successful lawyers and legal professionals and reduces turnover. It’s axiomatic that a happier worker produces a better work product.
But What About The Need for Interpersonal Time?
But law firm leaders say we all need to be in the office to reinforce our vaunted culture, train, and gain insight from one another.
Certainly, Miller and Husch recognize that nothing can substitute in-person time with others. But it’s a misconception that remote work has to sacrifice this interaction, according to Miller. It’s a fallacy that simply making people come to the office results in more time spent with one another. Most return to the office edicts ignore that need by merely requiring people to be in the office without more.
Miller rightfully observes that simply walking into the office does not create interaction. The demand to return to the office without more results in lawyers trudging into the office, going to their cubbyholes, closing their doors, and working until it is time to go home. What’s the point of that?
Miller says the trick is ensuring time in the office is spent in interpersonal interaction. Miller says that since work that does not require interpersonal interaction is done elsewhere, the time in the office is opened up. It can be spent doing what’s most valuable: working with colleagues. Doing the work that doesn’t require or need personal interaction frees people to be with others for the work that does. Rather than reduce time spent with others, remote work actually facilitates more time spent with others.
Rather than being the place where you are least likely to have personal interaction with others, the office becomes the place specifically for those interactions.
Miller believes allowing people to work remotely gives them more time to schedule in-person meetings, not less. When you come to the Husch office, it’s for scheduled interactions. . Rather than being the place where you are least likely to have personal interaction with others, the office becomes the place specifically for those interactions. People want to go to the office for interaction.
Husch also offers virtual programs like town halls, happy hours, wellness programs, and business development training. Husch also enables its virtual lawyers to regularly visit the closest brick and mortar office for personal interactions. The goal says Miller is to make the virtual lawyers and legal professionals the most connected people in the firm.
Unlike a lot of other firms, Husch doesn’t depend on random in-office encounters to achieve the ostensible goals of return to the office policies. Miller recognizes that creating personal interaction in the office takes effort, intention, planning, and hard work. But it’s well worth it. The result is higher quality work and more content lawyers and legal professionals. Miller insists that remote work inspires greater confidence and trust by lawyers and legal professionals in their firms. Giving people the freedom, control, and flexibility over time is a glass that is half full, not empty.
Another advantage of the Husch approach is that it opens up the opportunity to bring in the most talented people, irrespective of where they are geographically located. This opportunity was a boon to Miller’s practice, by the way. Like me, Miller is a mass tort lawyer with cases nationwide. The virtual office allows him and his clients to access the best talent in any given area, irrespective of whether a physical office exists there.
Miller admits that the virtual office component requires a significant investment in technology. The firm makes efforts to leverage technology in all aspects of the practice and provide the tech support its people need. I daresay that focusing on technology, its risks and benefits, makes for more successful legal professionals. And better client service all the way around.
But There’s The Training Thing
The two most often cited reasons to make people come to the office are better training and mentorship, Here again, Miller views the virtual office as a half-full glass. Miller says it is easier to create the opportunity for mentor-mentee interactions when they are approached purposely. Those interactions are improved when people don’t come to the office and work in isolation.
Miller also believes remote work opportunities lead to better training. Virtual offices force firms to be purposeful about training programs, a reality I have mentioned before. And the training can be done more efficiently through a virtual portal. The virtual portal gives associates better access to those in the firm with great expertise, regardless of location. Miller also notes that lots of learning now occurs via video contracting versus a phone call, another improvement.
The Brave New (Virtual) World
I share Miller’s views. All too often, lawyers look at virtual and talk about what it takes away. You can’t gauge body language. You can’t interact. Yada, yada, yada.
When you get right down to it, our time is the most valuable thing we have
Let’s face facts: the virtual world is here to stay, so let’s maximize its advantages. Yes, our in-person training is impacted. But you can do more training. And since there is no travel time, it’s easier to take younger lawyers with more experienced partners to more events.
Yes, you can’t see the judge in person. But think of the time savings in not trudging off to routine and not so routine motion hours. Time and expense savings mean more can participate in the judicial process, which is a good thing.
Yes, virtual reduces in-person attendance at conferences and seminars. But it opens the door for people who wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise attend. Virtual can eliminate the wasted time in pointless commenting.
When you get right down to it, our time is the most valuable thing we have. So why should we waste it on things we don’t need to do? Why shouldn’t we spend our time on the most important things?
Miller and Husch make a strong case for remote work and freedom for legal professionals to control where they do work. But are other firms listening? Or they are stuck trying to force people to work the way they want them to nstead of what works best for the individual.
Do they view remote work as the glass half empty?