The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.

Mark Twain

More and more law firms are opting to require lawyers and certainly associates to be in the office at least four days a week. At some point, this may convert to five-days in the office. Most of the time, management declares that those lawyers (read associates) who don’t comply could see their compensation reduced. (A pretty strong suggestion is that five days is better than 4 for advancement). 

Usually, management sanctimoniously emphasizes that a return to the office is necessary to preserve the vaunted firm culture. Sometimes explicitly, the return to the office policies are also justified by the belief that they will somehow increase productivity. Even if this is not said directly, tying compensation to compliance with the policies indicates an implicit assumption that those in the office will have higher productivity. And hence are worth more.

Most lawyers, on the other hand, oppose such requirements. They believe the real motive is the desire of older lawyers to control the workforce and return things to the way they were pre-COVID.

What is the real motive for harsher return to work policies?

So who is right: what is the real motive for harsher return to work policies? Until recently, it was a debate without much data to support either side. But in January of this year, two researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business, Mark Ma and Yuye Ding, issued a Report that examined employers’ goals in demanding a return to the office. It also looked at the effectiveness of those policies. While not directed at law firms in specific, the results nevertheless fuel the feeling that strict return to work policies are based not on empirical evidence but on the desires of older management rein in younger lawyers and personnel.

The researchers collected data from a number of S&P companies and employees about the impact of the return to office policies, including the effect on job satisfaction. They then analyzed the impact of those policies to see if the results bore any relationship to the reasons offered as justifications.

Here are some key–and startling–findings:

  • The sampling results do not support the idea that managers impose return to the office policies to increase firm values.
  • The results do support the idea that the policies are implemented to assert more control over employees and blame them for poor firm performance.
  • As a result of these policies, employees have worse perceptions of senior management and the firm. Morale decreases. Productivity actually decreases.
  • The results show that firms mandating a return to the office have lower trust in their employees.
  • ¼ of those making return to the office decisions admit they rely only on intuition.
  • More powerful male and Republican firm leaders are more likely to impose return to office mandates to try to regain and maintain control over employees.

Again, while the research and sampling were not directed toward law firms, one can’t help but notice that law firm leaders are most likely male, conservative, and powerful. So, it’s not surprising that they want to impose policies that help them hold onto power. After all, that’s how it’s always been done and other firms are doing it too.

Knowing lawyer hubris and the reluctance to use data over the gut, I would also guess that the number of managing partners relying on intuition alone in making return to the office decisions far exceeds that which Ma and Ding sampled.

It’s a little disingenuous to say training is essential, and we need you here to be trained. But then offer little in the way of training programs

The research did not examine whether training and mentoring are improved by having younger lawyers in the office. Logic would, of course, suggest that training could be enhanced by having associates in the office. But as I have discussed, training in most firms is still catch by catch can. It’s a little disingenuous to say training is essential, and we need you here to be trained. But then offer little in the way of training programs. If you aren’t going to provide robust training programs, it suggests that it is not training that is driving your desire to get lawyers back to the office.

Certainly, younger lawyers need to be mentored by other lawyers and gain an understanding of the firm. Again, though, potential sound rationale for returning to the office clashes with reality at many firms. Return to the office often means associate return but not partners. Partners are the very people who are critical to sound mentoring and guidance. 

Older lawyers want younger lawyers in the office because they think they can control them better

And, as has been pointed out before, younger lawyers don’t necessarily want to work at home all the time. What they want and often need is the flexibility to work from home when they need to be home. Strict return to work policies strike at the very heart of that desire. 

Indeed, there are ways to implement in the office policies that can be effective and achieve the desired results. But there are few and far between.

Instead, here is where most firms are: older lawyers want younger lawyers in the office because they think they can control them better, to be sure they are working, and because that’s the way we, as a profession, have always done it. It’s that simple.

Add all this up, and the result is that associates have less respect for their firms and management. Morale declines. Firm values and culture take a hit. Productivity decreases. Prize associates leave. Management blames the younger generation’s values. 

What price tradition?