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Junior Lawyers Feel Pressure to Return to Office at Big Firms

Oct. 6, 2021, 9:55 AM

Law firm associates who accept employer offers to work remotely during the pandemic are increasingly doing so with trepidation, as they worry they’re hurting relationships with bosses—and their careers.

Firm partners, subtly or not so subtly, are pressuring associates to work in-person even as office policies technically welcome them to continue working from home, current and former associates told Bloomberg Law.

“I spoke to an associate who told me that she’s otherwise happy at her job, but her main reason for seeking a new role is that she is being basically bullied into going in four days a week,” said Kate Reder Sheikh, a managing director for recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa. “She’s not comfortable with it.”

Law firms have outwardly stayed the course with flexible work arrangements as the Covid-19 delta variant surges and they seek to attract workers. But the increasing regular presence of partners in the office is sending a different message to associates who prefer working at home.

“The most wonderfully-constructed policy means naught if a partner for whom an associate works makes clear, by words or actions, that any remote work is disfavored,” said Jonathan Segal, a partner at Duane Morris who advises other firms on workplace issues.

A former Big Law associate who now works in-house in for a company in Canada said he viewed flexible work policies as something that was there for “show.”

“Most of the lawyers are back at the office, and the ones that aren’t are branded as people that are not as committed to the firm,” the attorney said, adding that associates who don’t work in-person alongside the firm’s partners could hurt their careers.

“There are a lot of unspoken expectations on the part of some partners that associates should come in and will be ‘docked’ in terms of work assignments, et cetera, if they don’t,” said Stephanie Ruiter, director at legal recruiting firm Lateral Link.

Optional Office

Most Big Law firms have been postponing their official return-to-office requirements while keeping their physical space available on an optional basis.

Firms like Baker McKenzie and Cravath Swaine & Moore have delayed their office return dates to later this month. A handful of others like Cooley, Perkins Coie, and Wilson Sonsini have said lawyers can continue to work remotely until early 2022.

The continued flexibility is in part because young associates have options. In one of the hottest talent markets the legal industry has seen in years, associates who feel pressured to work in-person can look elsewhere for the flexibility they want.

Cooley is among at least a handful of firms that have hired associates in locations where they do not have offices, telling the lawyers they can work from home permanently.

Firms that fail to give associates enough time to make the transition back to in-person work—such as the time it takes to find childcare—and firms that don’t provide clear expectations, are most likely to drive their associates away, Ruiter said.

The pressure to return to the office for some associates reflects broader cultural issues within many firms, according to Julian Sarafian, a California lawyer who left an associate job at a major firm in July. It shows how much associates’ career path can be affected based on the partner with whom they’re assigned to work.

“Associates are working in these subpods of attorneys with one or a couple of partners,” Sarafian said. “Not all of these partners are on board with the firm’s general policies, so you get a gross disparity on issues like returning to the office, taking vacation and managing workload.”

Fully Remote

A former Big Law associate who recently went in-house due to burnout said he exclusively searched for fully remote jobs when he left his firm.

“A lot of the older partners are more old school and would probably prefer to have their associates be in the office, just because a lot of the older partners like to be in the office,” the newly in-house lawyer said.

Firms and partners can alleviate pressure on associates by embracing flexibility and providing its lawyers and staff with clear guidelines on the firm’s return-to-office policies, Segal said.

“The turnover tsunami is not over,” he said. “How flexibility is handled very well may determine whether a firm has the talent it needs to meet the high expectations of clients.”

A firm’s culture and geography can affect an associate’s return-to-office experience.

Morgan Stanley told the outside law firms it works with in July that they needed to start bringing lawyers back to the office if they want to continue doing business with the company.

Morgan Stanley works with a wide range of firms, including some of the largest in the country, like Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Davis Polk & Wardwell; Shearman & Sterling; Greenberg Traurig; and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

West Coast Flex Coast

While major East Coast firms tend to follow Wall Street and its strict office culture, West Coast firms are more flexible in the style of large technology companies like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc., both of which allow employees to work remotely indefinitely.

“If you’re working with a bunch of emerging tech companies where everybody is still talking to you from their living room,” Sheikh said, “it would seem a little weird to be forced to come in, if that’s not what you wish to be doing.”

One current Big Law associate who works in intellectual property litigation for a firm with West Coast tendencies and flexible work options said he’s seen this cultural divide first-hand. His job gives him flexibility to work from home while others don’t have the option.

“I actually have two friends that are working out of pretty large firms in Austin, Texas, and they are fully back in the office, pre-Covid expectations back in place,” he said. “They’re going out and doing the social dinners and all of that.”

The pressure to work in-person still exists, even if partners allow their associates to stay home, according to the in-house lawyer in Canada.

“You’re never going to have comfort if they’re the ones taking the Zoom calls from the office and you’re the one working from home,” the in-house lawyer in Canada said. “They have to set the tone.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ruiqi Chen in Washington, D.C. at rchen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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