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Remote Law Firms: Is It Time to Return to the Office?
Monday, August 23, 2021

Ever since the pandemic, most law firms have been struggling. At first, the problem was figuring out how to make remote work for law firms effective. Now, the issue is how and when to proceed into the new normal. Many industries have already decided how their offices will change, but the legal sector continues to show indecisiveness in the move forward. Most firms are uncertain what direction will best serve their clients and lawyers.  

Part of the reason for this struggle is the same thing that makes the industry unique: it’s full of tradition that clients and senior attorneys have no desire to change. But with the shift in technology and a push for flexibility, leadership recognizes the benefit of remote working.

So, is it time to return full-time in-office or should remote law firms remain? Or could it be time to compromise and adopt a hybrid work plan?

A false sense of security

Throughout the spring and summer of 2021, many felt COVID-19 was in the rearview mirror.  So, business owners and management started to reopen and call employees back to work.  Initially, all businesses still had some degree of flexibility on returning to office work. For many, the return started as a hybrid work model—but that wasn’t the one size fits all solution everyone hoped it would be. Many lawyers were still eagerly waiting for a full-time office solution. 

The introduction of vaccines provided the security many needed to feel comfortable in the workplace. Many businesses and firms are currently requiring vaccination before returning in-office. So, fully vaccinated lawyers are relieved and have returned to full-time office work. However, not everyone is willing to receive the vaccination for numerous reasons, ranging from personal health to religion and even politics. So firms are left planning how to proceed with each group in mind. 

The CDC already recommends that masks be used by the unvaccinated. But enforcing it leads to many new problems. HIPAA prevents any employer from demanding proof of vaccination.  ADA protects employees from being forced to identify disabilities that prevent mask-wearing or vaccination. 

Forcing people to wear a mask or get vaccinated may not be advisable as it can cause people to feel alienated, singled out, or discriminated against. As an attorney, you likely see the issues in all of these scenarios. But does that mean remote or hybrid work is a better alternative? 

Home not-so-sweet home

To some people working from home is the perfect balance of work and life. They get to avoid the frustration of sitting in traffic on their daily commute. Plus, get to save money typically spent on fuel and dry cleaning.    

But in some households, the pros may not outweigh the cons. For them, remote working may even introduce new problems. One common issue is gender inequality in the home. In many households, females often carry a greater role in caring for others. So, caring for aging parents or children makes getting work accomplished a challenge. In this case, working from home may even be more stressful. 

Another common issue is that many schools were closed through 2020. Children receiving their education via online learning became a significant pain point. Parents took on the roles of principals and teachers on top of their work.  

For others, the thought of being called back into the office caused them anxiety. Mental health issues have been on the rise since the start of 2020, with rates of anxiety and depression still increasing. Compounding that with the fear of returning to the office could be too much for some in the legal field. 

Trial and error

Despite planning and effort, firms may be sidetracked from returning to office work. Due to new COVID restrictions and variants, new challenges are rising. State and federal guidelines are changing quickly, forcing firms to change their plans.

Teams have been working around the clock to find solutions that get everyone back in the office. “It’s the biggest issue facing every law firm,” Cozen O’Connor executive chairman and CEO Michael Heller recently said to Law.com. “We’ve all realized that in the short term, we can do fine working remotely. But at least most of my peers would agree that this is not a great long-term business strategy. Getting people back together, for training and mentoring, that’s in the best interest of the industry.”

Many law firms have tried to ease concerns by making promises of concessions. Most have even pushed returning to the office back until after Labor Day.  

Discovery, the way forward

While the option to work remotely was only intended as an exception, it’s quickly turning into the rule for some people. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being (Well-Being Committee) has made the following suggestions for moving forward: 

This assumption that full-time, in-person work is preferable in all circumstances generally ignores or excludes the lived experiences of those who are balancing work with individual challenges, disabilities, or significant external obligations (such as caring for themselves, young children, aging parents, or others).”

For this to work, some new solutions will need to be created. Companies may need to implement policies crafted by those working in-office and remotely while continuing the use of technologies that allowed remote workers to participate in team-building events. 

Resting the case for remote law firms

It seems like the CDC comes out with new guidelines every week. Yet, state and local governments offer little guidance or support. So, all the return-to-office plans law firms have formulated are subject to continual change.  

This constant change is leaving senior leadership in most firms scrambling for answers. Unfortunately, for now, there are none. Simply offering much-needed support for their members may be all they can do.

Change in any culture can be difficult, especially after recent shifts in office and social norms. Even courtroom appearances have changed. So, this could be an opportunity to usher in a change in the law industry. With competition amongst firms, client demand, and outside accountability measurements are all pushing for change—so maybe the time to return to the office is best decided by attorneys.

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