Law Firms

How law firms can maintain office culture in the age of remote working

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Law firm culture

Photo illustration by Sara Wadford/Shutterstock

With a little help from Zoom, noise-canceling headphones and ergonomic chairs, we’ve mastered working remotely.

There’s no commute, there’s more time to spend with family, and you can sometimes get away with wearing casual bottoms. In fact, workers love the remote world so much that a study released by videoconferencing tool manufacturer Owl Labs in September found that 62% of respondents would take a pay cut of 10% or more in exchange for being able to work remotely, and 4% would quit their job if they were no longer able to work in a remote or hybrid position.

Still, with fewer people gathering around the watercooler, how are firms maintaining office culture?

“Now it’s a matter of determining how do we make … the best of it and be most successful,” Mark Klender, the vice president of client engagement at Harbor Global said in the ABA Journal’s Legal Rebels Podcast. “Hybrid clearly is impacting firm culture. … Firms have to be more intentional.”

A law firm’s company culture can be oriented to strengthen relationships and enhance performance, or it can enforce rules or norms to create internal pressure, competition or initiative, says Marcie Borgal Shunk, the president and founder of the Tilt Institute, a Houston company specializing in helping firms make better business decisions.

Realizing the importance of company culture—regardless of the type of culture they deem to create—law firms are increasing their professional development spending activities (such as education or mental health resilience classes), according to new research co-produced by the Tilt Institute and ALM Intelligence. Sixty-two percent of large firms increased development training over the past year, and 72% expanded leadership training, coaching or opportunities.

‘Second only to money’

Marcie Borgal Shunk. Photo courtesy of the Tilt Institute

Firms are going to have a culture, regardless of whether they manage it, Shunk says. So it’s important to create more professional development opportunities so the cultivation of culture is not left to chance.

“Given that culture is second only to money as the reason associates stay at a firm, that’s a big risk,” she says. “For those firms who can’t compete on money, culture is everything.”

The essentials for creating a strong culture in a firm are training, social activities and intention. First, Shunk says, firms need to equip their leaders and employees with the tools and skills they need to be effective at fostering trusting relationships, building an inclusive environment and motivating others.

Some ideas are to reserve the first 10 minutes of a Zoom call for social interaction; and to create in-person or even Zoom lunches, happy hours and more.

Laura Long, the San Francisco-based chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Hanson Bridgett, where 10% of the firm is fully remote and the remainder don’t have any in-office requirements—says she’s had success with other methods.

Hanson Bridgett, a law firm with more than 200 attorneys in six California offices, has online training and workshops focusing on fostering inclusivity and diversity; feedback channels where team members can voice their concerns or suggestions about the remote working experience; regularly scheduled hybrid team meetings where work and milestones are celebrated; and virtual social hours.

Challenges the firm still face include the spontaneous conversations and camaraderie that naturally happen in an office setting and overreliance on written communication.

“Without face-to-face interactions, there’s a greater risk of misinterpretation or miscommunication,” Long says.

To combat this, the firm is rolling out initiatives to promote the mental and physical well-being of the members—which is expected to help with miscommunication and should help increase in-person interactions.

Eric Toscano, the founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based Tenant Law Group, where 100% of the law firm is virtual but there are three physical offices for appointments, says only one of its 46 employees voluntarily left in 2023—thanks in major part to its emphasis on office culture. “Initially,” Toscano says, his remote office culture goals were to “make Tenant Law Group a place where people would want to join and would want to work here, and then not want to leave.”

To maintain this, he hosts virtual happy hours where the rule is not to talk about work; annual teamwide events; virtual parties with fun themes, such as “Murder in Ancient Egypt”; and more. Toscano has a virtual lunch every week with a different team member so they can get to know each other better. At the moment, he’s considering creating avatar virtual office spaces in the metaverse. These could be used for meetings, for collaboration and just for a more comfortable working environment that feels like the firm is in-person.

He has another goal: an annual global long weekend in California just for fun. For some there, it may be the first time they see their colleagues without the need to log in.

This story was originally published in the February-March 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Culture Awareness: How law firms can maintain office culture in the age of remote working”

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