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Returning to the Legal Office: How Employers and Employees Can Find Common Ground
by: Cherie Basener, Kirk Coleman of Major Lindsey & Africa  -  Major Lindsey & Africa Articles
Friday, November 18, 2022

As the pandemic recedes into the background of everyday life, many law firms and legal departments are pushing for a return to the good old days of water cooler chats and in-person huddles. Are their lawyers and staff on board? Not quite—at least when it comes to the younger crowd. A recent survey from the American Bar Association (ABA) reports that 44% of lawyers who have practiced for 10 years or less would swap their current job for one more amenable to remote work. Among older lawyers practicing for 41 or more years, only 13% shared this sentiment.

A generational divide

The divide between who’s ready to go back to the office and who wants to stay remote seems to have a generational component. Since face-time culture was a key foundational experience for them and they’ve seen the benefits firsthand, Baby Boomer and GenX populations tend to gravitate toward this arrangement.

Millennial and GenZ professionals, for their part, are more inclined to work remotely. This could be because they experienced remote work early in their career and have adapted well to it. In fact, without the soul-sucking commute and distractions inherent with an office setting, many lawyers have become proficient at working remotely. The ABA survey found that 90% of lawyers felt remote work had no bearing on the quality of their work, or even improved it. To sum it up, Millennials and GenZ attorneys have had a taste of freedom, and they’re not keen on going backwards.

What do candidates really want?

Speaking to candidates every day, we’ve gained a good understanding of their working arrangement “wish list.” Above all, they want flexibility—not only in how many days they show up at the office, but also in the number of hours they work each day. They appreciate being able to complete their work at a time that’s convenient for them, which allows more leeway for taking their kids to school, attending after-school activities, fitting in healthcare appointments, and generally having more control and autonomy over their work schedules. These lawyers aren’t asking for a reduced workload or to work fewer hours. They simply want the autonomy of being able to manage their work in a way that fits their needs and lifestyle.

Candidates also want their employers to recognize they’re actually working at home and not “slacking off.” Many of their professional duties can be completed beyond the confines of a brick-and-mortar office. These lawyers feel they’ve already proven they can work effectively from a distance and have earned (and deserve) employers’ trust.

Employers’ biggest concerns

The employers we work with seem to largely want their people back in the building. Many hope to rebuild their original culture and restore a feeling of camaraderie and social connectivity, so that new hires feel embraced and engaged. Further, some employers say that onboarding is much easier and more efficient in person.

Another issue is diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). While lack of people in the office may reduce microaggressions from happening in the first place, it also makes problems more challenging to address when they do arise. Ensuring forward progression in DE&I efforts can be harder to track in an all(or mostly) remote environment.

Employers also point to diminishing training and professional development as a result of fully remote work. Employers fear that organic, on-the-job training opportunities—such as observational learning, mentoring, and impromptu brainstorming sessions—don't happen as often or as effectively in the virtual work setting. Working remotely can also make mentor/mentee bonds harder to form compared to having frequent, face-to-face discussions in an office.

Of course, certain employers still worry that employees who work remotely aren’t as productive as those in the office. A new study from Microsoft found that 49% of managers who oversee hybrid workers had trouble trusting employees to deliver their best work. However, a recent survey from Future Forum suggests those fears may be unfounded, showing that workers with total schedule flexibility reported 29% higher productivity than workers with an inflexible schedule.

Where do we go from here? It’s all about compromise.

Should employers require their employees to make a full return to the physical workplace? The simple answer is no. Even with some lawyers eager to head back to their old digs, expecting them to return to a 5-day, in-office workweek is not realistic given the candidate market and a strong desire for flexibility.

Instead, it’s time for employers and employees to come together to explore ideas that leave both sides feeling heard and respected. Here are some potential solutions:

  1. Set quarterly in-office time expectations: This doesn’t mean mandating a certain number of hours so employees can simply check a box. Rather, employers will have more success creating occasions with a purpose—such as team-building events or team meetings. Bringing in employees for targeted relationship-building activities will go a longer way in fostering workplace culture.

  2. Require face time for specific assignments: Employers can also consider having their lawyers be in the office for certain types of work, such as trial prep or client calls. This should be discussed and communicated with teams well in advance. This also provides employers an opportunity to explain why certain tasks require employees to be in the office (e.g., professional development and training). Employees may be more inclined to participate and have buy-in if they understand this rationale.

  3. Incentivize employees to come in: Who doesn't love a free lunch? Here's where employers can get creative to make their workplace more alluring. Aside from complimentary meals, coffee, and snacks, other incentives may include free or subsidized transportation, free or discounted access to nearby amenities (e.g., fitness center), and upgrades to the physical space.

  4. Reward time in-office with remote-work days: We’ve seen some employers set a precedent by having all new hires in the office three days a week during their first 90 days, then only on an as-needed basis or as team leads dictate. This seems to be a feasible way to meet somewhere in the middle. It gives new employees the chance to experience the benefits of being in the office and then earn more freedom and flexibility over time.

Establishing and nurturing a strong, healthy office culture can help organizations get the best out of their legal workforce. It's all around good for business. But it should be employees, not employers, leading this initiative. Culture that’s developed from the ground up is more likely to flourish, since there’s more buy-in from employees.

To achieve this, firms and organizations must maintain an open dialogue with their teams. Management should conduct frequent surveys and develop policies that align with this feedback, and potentially establish committees where employees across the board can have a voice in developing workplace policies. Indeed, a balanced, collaborative approach will encourage positive culture-building and high productivity while empowering employees to personalize their working arrangement. 

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