I recently had lunch with a former colleague who became a more senior lawyer at a reputable mid-sized firm in my area. This colleague told me that she was part of the firm’s recruitment efforts and shared that her firm, like many other law firms, is in high competition to attract talented partners, lawyers and partners. My friend told me that many candidates ask about remote work policies on the shop floor, and she thinks that if law firms don’t embrace remote work, they might have a harder time. to recruit and retain talent. This intrigued me because remote working was a perk few of us thought of many years ago, and now it may be the defining characteristic of a potential employer.
Of course, remote work is nothing new, and law firms have traditionally had smooth working arrangements for some lawyers. When I started working as an associate at a Biglaw store about a decade ago, I remember flipping through the employee handbook and noticing a section on non-traditional work schedules. The handbook stated that the company would consider lowering an associate’s billable hour expectations if the associate also received lower annual compensation. The manual also said that employees could request a flexible work schedule under which they were only in the office on certain days of the week, and they could complete their work remotely the rest of the time.
Most law firms I’ve worked at have had remote work tools for years. Indeed, most stores I have experience with provided lawyers with work laptops so they could perform their work remotely and had cloud-based systems so lawyers could access working documents from anywhere. Also, many colleagues and I used to use text strings, Gchat and other methods to communicate with each other outside of the office.
Remote work, entirely or primarily, has been a long time coming to the legal profession, but COVID-19 has really brought this progress to the forefront of the legal industry. For months, if not years, law firms have closed their offices during the pandemic to promote social distancing and keep everyone safe. Even though virtual work got off to a rocky start in many stores, most law firms found they were just as productive with remote work as they were when people were in the office.
Because of the pandemic, a whole generation of lawyers has become accustomed to working remotely. Many summer associates in recent summers have done much of their work remotely, and associates who started their careers in recent years may consider remote work to be the norm. In fact, many lawyers have even interviewed remotely for their work and have rarely, if ever, met everyone they work with on projects.
For a variety of reasons, law firms look set to reopen their offices in the weeks and months to come. Although law firms are mostly just as productive with remote work as they are with in-person work, old-school law firm managers may believe that there are certain benefits to having people interact and collaborate people in person. Additionally, many law firms have long-term leases, and they can be frustrated with having to pay rent month after month, even if the firm is doing decently well with remote work.
My friend told me that law firms that adopt more rigid back-to-office policies can struggle to attract young talent. All legal professionals who started their careers in the age of COVID may not consider in-person work to be the norm and may not appreciate the need to go to an office to do their work when they can primarily perform tasks remotely. People may think it’s undesirable to spend time and money going to an office where they probably have to interact with a boss and can’t have too much control over a schedule when others companies offer remote work policies.
Even lawyers who have worked in the legal profession for years or decades may not wish to apply for a job with strict in-person work expectations. Work-from-home policies have not only helped legal professionals stay safe, but they’ve also allowed people to juggle all the personal and professional tasks they need to complete in any given day. If someone has to go to the office, it can be difficult to deal with childcare, car problems, or any other personal issues that we all have to deal with in our daily lives. Established legal professionals may not want to give up that freedom they’ve had for a few years to work for a firm that requires them to move around an office.
Altogether, law firms likely believe in-person work policies will increase productivity and impact their bottom line. However, law firms with stricter in-person work policies may struggle to recruit and retain talent, and law firms should take this into account when deciding whether to pursue remote work policies. .
Jordan Rothman is a partner at The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service law firm in New York and New Jersey. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website detailing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan by email at [email protected]