Business of Law

Are law firm leaders having second thoughts on remote work?

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Photo illustration by Sara Wadford/ABA Journal

Richard D. Rivera, a Jacksonville, Florida-based partner at Smith, Gambrell & Russell, was at a law firm retreat in late 2019 when someone asked whether the firm would ever allow its lawyers to work remotely. The answer was a hard no.

“The attitude was, ‘We’re not going to do any remote working. We’re not going to have that available because we don’t believe in it,’” Rivera says.

Three years later, the shift at Rivera’s firm and others couldn’t be more dramatic. According to the ABA’s 2022 Practice Forward Report published in September, 89% of lawyers in private practice are allowed to work remotely, with 18% permitted to work out of the office all the time and 45% with the flexibility to choose their own schedule.

Smith, Gambrell & Russell has a firmwide policy, but “each office has discretion about enforcing it,” Rivera says. The policy requires junior associates to come in three days a week, but senior associates and partners are allowed to come in more or less when they like. At one time, he didn’t see the firm’s work-from-home policies changing; now, he’s not so sure.

Pre-pandemic, the firm’s offices in Jacksonville and Atlanta entered into new long-term leases. Now, when law firm leaders walk around and see space they have paid for only two-thirds full, they start second-guessing remote work, he says.

“I’ve definitely seen that the attitudes toward remote working in those two offices is much more, ‘Let’s get people back in the office,’” Rivera says.

Recent headlines suggest the flexible working arrangements many take for granted are not so settled in the minds of other corporate CEOs and law firm leaders. Late last year, LinkedIn and job site Indeed Hiring Lab reported that postings for remote work positions were waning despite high demand from applicants. That, combined with a softening economy, has some wondering if companies have newfound leverage to demand workers to come in.

But Kent Zimmermann, a strategic adviser to law firms and principal at the Zeughauser Group, says although many firms would like more attorneys in the office, they have to offer flexible working arrangements to retain and attract top talent.

“Many firms feel that they aren’t in a position to draw a line in the sand. And even firms that come close to drawing a line in the sand don’t feel they’re in a position to do much when people don’t comply,” Zimmermann says.

That doesn’t mean some aren’t trying. In January, Sidley Austin told junior associates it would tie bonuses to in-office attendance, Bloomberg Law reported. It wants lawyers to come in at least three days a week. In June, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Davis Polk & Wardwell announced they would expect lawyers to come in at least four days a week, according to Reuters. Other firms have taken a soft approach to lure lawyers back: redesigning office space, offering free food and allowing lawyers to wear denim.

Midsize Chicago firm Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila announced lawyers had to return to the office full time starting Feb. 1. It wasn’t a decision managing partner Patricia Brown Homes took lightly. She was worried lawyers could leave the firm if they were made to give up working remotely and says communication and transparency were crucial to get them on board. Before an official announcement, she met with attorneys individually and in small groups to hear grievances or concerns.

Holmes says not one lawyer left after the change. But she cautions that what worked for her firm might not work for others. Flexibility is critical; otherwise, firms risk losing good people, she says. Even before the law firm’s change in policy, it enticed lawyers by including free lunches and breakfasts some days of the week, and a bingo party and giveaways, including airline tickets.

“You have to be brave enough to go in one direction and pivot and go in another direction to see what works. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Holmes says, adding that firms have to keep one eye on Generation Z and millennial lawyers demanding remote work arrangements.

State of flux

StacieStacie B. Collier

The different approaches signal that three years into the pandemic, the legal industry hasn’t settled on what the “new normal” of law firm culture looks like. Managing partners might have expected an increase in layoffs and a drop in demand to have given them more leverage to enforce office mandates. But it didn’t work out that way, Zimmermann says.

“In some of the largest and most profitable firms, there is less permissiveness of remote work and flexibility. But in most firms, they’re not in a position to demand people get in the office, for fear that they’ll go to firms that are more flexible,” Zimmermann says. “I do think firms have more leverage. But not so much they’ll say, ‘Get in, or else we’re going to dock your pay.’”

Am Law 100 firms had banner years in 2020 and 2021 with increases in gross revenue, revenue per lawyer and profits per partner. As firms’ coffers swelled, they met demand by hiring many more remote lawyers, according to Randi Lewis, a managing director at the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. Now that demand is cooling, she expects many firms to scale back hiring for fully remote positions while retaining fully remote attorneys who add value.

“The bottom line is, there are fewer opportunities for fully remote work,” Lewis says. “People are going to be required to come in the office either full time or at least three days a week.”

Three days a week seems to be the standard among many major law firms, although some have reportedly struggled to enforce return-to-office mandates.

Stacie B. Collier, a partner and chief talent officer at Nixon Peabody, says in fall 2022, the firm told attorneys it expected them to come in two days a week—on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays.

According to Collier, what “in the office” means is open to interpretation. It could mean being on-site with a client or working out of one of the firm’s offices around the country.

“We’re not taking attendance. It’s not something we’re tying to compensation or anything quantifiable. We’re just looking to get the largest critical mass of folks in the office [at] a given time,” she says.

RobertaRoberta D. Liebenberg

Roberta D. Liebenberg, who co-authored the ABA’s 2022 Practice Forward Report, says for most firms, flexible working arrangements are staying put. Many firms also have renegotiated leases and reduced their footprint, adding to the sense there is no turning back.

“I do not foresee lawyers going back to the office five days a week. I think a hybrid flexible work policy is going to remain for people who have come to expect it,” she says, adding that remote work also helps law firms retain women.

All the same, she says many law firms have some work to do in creating hybrid work strategies that allow them to mentor and develop talent remotely and build a new culture. Liebenberg consults with law firm leaders and says there aren’t many with clearly defined written policies on hybrid work.

In the next five years, 2022 Practice Forward Report co-author Stephanie A. Scharf foresees “a dichotomy in the legal profession between those firms and companies that can make remote working work” and those that can’t.

“The companies that can make it work will have a much greater advantage in recruiting younger talent and recruiting diverse talent,” Scharf says. “If companies or firms cannot make it work, they could very well be on the losing end of the talent war. After a while, you just can’t buy talent. You have to give lawyers something more.”

This story was originally published in the August-September 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Remote Control: Are some law firm leaders having second thoughts on remote work?”

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