Practice Management

How to handle tough conversations on whether to return to the office

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Susan Smith Blakely

Susan Smith Blakely.

The question is on every lawyer’s mind these days: When will management beckon me to return to my law firm office? And the related questions also weigh heavily: Do I want to do it? Can I do it? Will I do it?

After more than a year of pandemic-related remote working conditions, law firms are beginning to send messages to their members with plans for returning to the office. For some, the iron fist variety do not go over well because the underlying message is that the “business as usual” law profession has learned little from the pandemic.

One such message got my attention earlier this month: A top AM Law 100 firm’s management sent an email about returning to the office, and many recipients interpreted the message more as a stick than a carrot. Although it gave assurances about vaccination requirements and purported to be concerned with the comfort level of the workforce, the messaging came across as mandatory, according to reports.

At the very least, it seemed ambiguous and failed to recognize that there is still a lot of anxiety associated with pandemic-related constraints. In a profession that prides itself on effective communication, it did not look like a best effort.

On the other hand, there also are reports that BigLaw firms are hiring associates who want to work exclusively from remote sites. This seems to be consistent with BigLaw’s frenzied hiring pace these days, but not all lawyers breathe that rarified air—and many would not want to.

New but not normal

Even though some law firms may not have learned as much as they could have about their members’ pandemic sensitivities, there is little question that lawyers themselves, especially those with young children, have learned a lot during the past year of remote work.

They have learned that the business of law is far from back to normal and likely will not be for a while, if ever. They know this because their personal and professional lives are still in turmoil. They still have significant childcare issues, especially those with children enrolled in schools that are not yet back to full-time in-school schedules. They also know that there is still a possibility of catching COVID-19 in the office and bringing it back home to their children at a time when so much remains unknown about the effectiveness of vaccines, especially against new strains. And for some, the thought of commuting via mass transportation makes them break out in hives.

A recent ABA study, Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward, disclosed that most of the lawyers surveyed do not want to return to the workplace policies that existed pre-pandemic. They are not thrilled with the five-day workweek in the office, and they understand that flexible schedules and working remotely do not diminish their work product. Those surveyed also attach increased importance to comprehensive sick and family leave policies, and they want greater emphasis on personal and professional well-being in the workplace. Simply stated, lawyers have survived the onslaught of the pandemic and their values have been redefined by it.

The ABA study further concluded that a high percentage of the lawyers surveyed want success to be measured by specific productivity metrics. In other words, if a lawyer can bill 2,200 hours doing his or her work at Starbucks, that level of productivity should represent value that translates to success.

Lawyers’ new attitudes and preferences provide a great opportunity for law firms to listen to what lawyers want in this moment rather than hearing it as they walk out the door and take their talent and experience with them.

The value of remote work has been unequivocally proved during the COVID-19 crisis and has been the subject of recent articles addressing the unbelievably high profits law firms have garnered over this pandemic. One headline read, “Against all odds, the Am Law 100 were stunningly successful in 2020”—you don’t often hear about anything stunningly successful when referring to 2020.

Rather than concentrate on the stunningly successful profits of 2020—which many law firms have shared with employees in the form of unprecedented associate bonuses in 2021—it would be a good time to acknowledge the contribution of the millennial generation of lawyers, who have been heralding the benefits of remote work all along. It is an opportunity to acknowledge young lawyers as valuable members of the team.

What do you want?

The next step is to ask yourself what you want in the post-pandemic legal world. Are you satisfied with remote practice? Do you want to return to office practice? Perhaps a blend of those two experiences is what appeals most to you.

In anticipation of having tough return-to-work conversations, you must do your homework and be prepared. If you do not feel comfortable returning to the office, you need to be able to articulate your concerns and base them on facts. Be prepared with statistics from the experiences of other law firms, and provide examples about how your proposal for a return-to-the-office work experience benefits both you and the law firm.

Those examples might include the adverse effect of commuting on billable time, the technological advances available to satisfy the needs for face time and facilitate team practice, and the opportunities for law firm management to reimagine the workplace to remain competitive in the 21st century.

The suggestion of a relaxed return schedule that allows you to ease into the office setting over time is a place to start. Chances are that firm leaders concerned about psychological safety as much as physical safety, and if they are not, you have an opportunity to educate them about the importance of it. You can help them understand that providing flexibility and options in how they manage a return to the office will minimize the potential for employees to feel pushed too far. You can exercise the newfound bargaining power that workers are experiencing across many professions at this time.

To stay or go?

And some of you may be contemplating leaving the profession altogether. That is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, and it is likely most of the lawyers weighing that option will be the lawyer-moms.

Many women lawyers—not just junior women lawyers—wrestle with the conflict of career and family at some point, and there is no shame in whatever choices they make. A recent article reported predictions of a major exodus of women lawyers from large law firm practices on the heels of the pandemic unless firms address the women’s concerns, which include childcare issues, flexible work conditions, fair compensation, equitable treatment of generation credits and paths to partnership that include part-time practice.

As women lawyers assess their options, it is important for them to negotiate from positions of strength and professionalism. While it is reasonable that women lawyers want to see law firms invest in them, law firms also want to see women lawyers take realistic views of what a successful practice means. Although earning billing hours at home in sweatpants is comfortable and low maintenance, working from home all the time may be a bridge too far in a profession that has placed high value on face time and in-office time for more than 200 years. A reasonable compromise has a far greater chance of success.

The pandemic has provided the opportunity to look at the work-frenzy of lawyers’ lives under a microscope, and some lawyers don’t like what they see. But they are not indentured slaves, and the choice is theirs: Either accept unsatisfying policies and practices or fight to create the changes they need.

Careers hang in the balance, and it is very personal.

Susan Smith Blakely is a former partner, law career counselor and the author of the Best Friends at the Bar book series for female lawyers. Her most recent book is What Millennial Lawyers Want: A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice.

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