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BigLaw embraces the remote work trend

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With an emerging workforce focused on career paths offering better work-life balance, BigLaw firms are changing the ways they attract new talent and meet the demands of the modern professional. One of the newest perks: the virtual office. But in an industry reliant on face-to-face communication and notorious for a culture of working long hours, the change in remote work policies for lawyers has been a gradual one, marked by firms wetting their feet with regional beta tests before rolling out companywide initiatives.

After its own successful beta test, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius announced plans this year to allow its associates in the U.S. and the U.K. to work remotely up to two days a week. Jackson Lewis and Baker McKenzie have also launched new flexible work programs. In a press release, Jackson Lewis describes its remote work program as a “win-win” that will help the firm continue to attract and retain top talent “without sacrificing productivity, responsiveness or engagement.”

Top on the list of concerns for firms considering remote work programs are cybersecurity and productivity. Steve Falkin, managing director of IT strategy at HBR Consulting in Chicago, helps firms create flexible work cultures through mobility solutions and secure remote access. According to Falkin, technology can solve many of the barriers that might have prevented firms from embracing remote work in the past.

“Today’s lawyers have varying work styles, and technology should support that to the greatest extent possible,” Falkin says. “Allowing lawyers to have flexibility in the type of devices used to access firm systems—and ensuring they can work at times and in the manner that best fits their lifestyle—is key.”

Baker McKenzie already had technology in place to allow for flexible work arrangements before launching its new program, bAgile. Peter May, chief talent officer, says the firm hopes a more formalized program will ensure its flexible work options are available to everyone—not just the people who were already utilizing them. “We ... wanted to create a more formal and comprehensive framework that went beyond remote working. This is about educating our people about what’s possible,” May says.

Some firms have expanded their remote programs to include staff. Sarah Leonard is a legal assistant participating in an “agile work program” offered by a large global law firm in Washington, D.C. She says she started utilizing her firm’s flexible work program in December because the commute from her home in Southern Maryland was “extremely taxing.” Leonard now works one day a week from home using a laptop provided by the firm and a virtual private network.

When she started at the firm, Leonard says, the agile program was just being implemented for nonattorney staffers. “Presently, a large majority of attorney assistants take advantage of the program in some fashion, either by working from home, working custom hours or working longer hours and having a day off. This schedule has positively benefited me both financially and emotionally,” she adds. “One day a week I’m able to wake up, walk across the hall to my office and take my dog to work.”

In the most recent survey by the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance, a D.C. think tank, 26 of the 28 participating law firms had formal flexibility policies. But despite this fact, the survey found many attorneys may perceive flexible work options to be detrimental to their long-term career advancement, with only 1 percent of equity partners and 5 percent of associates utilizing such programs.

Despite the number of firm lawyers actually taking advantage of flexible work programs, such policies may still help firms attract new talent. A PwC study in partnership with the University of Southern California and the London Business School showed work-life balance to be a top priority of millennials. PwC’s NextGen reported 64 percent saying they would like to occasionally work from home, and 15 percent of men and 21 percent of women saying they would give up some of their pay and slow the pace of promotion in exchange for working fewer hours.

This article was first published in the August 2017 ABA Journal magazine with the headline "Dialing It In: BigLaw embraces the remote work trend."

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