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Is Firm Culture a Good Reason to Return to the Office?

Sept. 8, 2021, 3:17 PM

You could say you know it when you see it.

I’m talking about workplace culture—that “je ne sais quoi” factor that CEOs and law firm leaders love to cite as the reason employees should/must return to the office. In July, Morgan Stanley’s legal chief Eric Grossman famously (or infamously) commanded that outside counsel get its troops back to the office pronto because “our profession cannot long endure a remote work model.”

But what constitutes law firm “culture”? And why do we assume that it’s worth salvaging in the first place?

Part of the folklore of that culture is how young lawyers are trained—what Grossman calls the “apprenticeship model”—which, to me, conjures images of aspiring cabinet makers, learning at the feet of master craftsmen. But is that how lawyers would describe their experience in Big Law?

From what I’ve seen as both a lawyer and journalist, law firm culture—or whatever you want to call it—isn’t that wonderful. I mean, what can you say about culture in an industry where the business model is essentially “bill, baby, bill”?

Unless they’re already in management or gunning for partnership, few lawyers I’ve met in my travels laud their firm’s culture. Often, Big Law is an alienating environment for young lawyers, but arguably more so for women and minorities—which might explain why some of them truly dread returning to the office.

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“It’s not that most associates don’t want to ever go back to the office,” says Lauren Skerrett, an associate at Kirkland & Ellis who’s been quite open about the travails of being a Black lawyer. “It’s that people don’t enjoy the culture.” Most firms, she adds, “don’t really have an intentional culture, except ‘being best’—and that’s not much of a culture.” And what constitutes “culture” in Big Law can feel especially cold to minority lawyers. “You’re stuck in some partner’s office where they don’t make eye contact,” says Skerrett. “Or you walk by a partner who doesn’t acknowledge you—which is especially true for minority associates. Working remotely removes that social stress; it’s less emotional work.”

Skerrett’s reluctance to go back to the office is shared by Black employees in other professions as well. According to a survey of knowledge workers (broadly defined as high-level problem solvers that include doctors, academics, engineers, scientists, lawyers—among others—who develop products and services) by Future Forum, 97% of Black workers prefer to work remotely full-time or partially, compared with 79% of White workers. Moreover, only 3% of Black knowledge workers want to go back to the office full-time, compared to 21% of White workers. Ironically, perhaps, the survey finds that Black workers felt a greater “sense of belonging at work” through remote work because they no longer have to deal with microaggressions or engage in “code switching” to make themselves more acceptable to the dominant culture.

There’s also a gender divide about returning to the office. In a 2021 study by Major, Lindsey & Africa and Law360 Pulse, 29% of men and 15% of women were “very eager” to return to the office.

Some female lawyers have found law firm culture more palatable during the pandemic. “I’ve talked to women partner candidates, including lawyers of color, who decided to stay at their current firms because of remote work,” says Suzanne Kane, a San Francisco-based headhunter with the recruiting firm Macrae. “They tell me, ‘I don’t mind my job so much because I don’t have to see these jerks in the office anymore!’”

Some women and minorities might find law firm culture unwelcoming at times, but is remote work the answer? They’re already facing challenges being seen and heard, so aren’t they running the risk of being more invisible by avoiding the office?

“Some of the younger [diverse] lawyers want their cake and eat it too,” says Mark Mao, a partner at Boies Schiller’s Silicon Valley office. “They want to work remotely but they also want somebody to look out for them.” Mao says he understands that sentiment (“I might have said that the culture thing is bullshit when I was younger”) but that limiting direct interactions with partners won’t work: “In my experience with Boomers, they want you there to show you things.” And Boomers, reminds Mao, “are still in power.”

But aren’t those Boomer partners largely White men who tend to mentor other White men—which is why women and minorities feel excluded?

Mao’s advice: Get over it. “A lot of White men took me under their wings,” he says. An immigrant from Taiwan who had a tough upbringing (“I hung out with the wrong crowd but somehow miraculously got into Berkeley”), Mao says he was “desperate to succeed” once he got out of law school. “I was so broken that I turned off the identity thing. One reason I’m successful is that I bury a lot of things.” He adds, “When you come from a lower middle class background, how else are you going to learn unless you open that door?”

That’s more or less the advice that Chris Porter, co-managing partner of Quinn Emanuel’s Houston office, gives as well. “Law firm culture is just tough for young associates,” says Porter who’s African American and a native Houstonian. A former collegiate athlete who once aspired to play professional football before graduating from University of Michigan Law School, Porter says he’s extremely disciplined and focused: “You have to learn to put bad things behind you and bounce back. There are challenges in working at a law firm, no matter what color or gender you are; you have to adjust.”

I get his point: If you want to make it in Big Law—or any other segment of Corporate America—stay laser focused and don’t let the hurdles throw you off course.

A Latina litigation associate at a Big Law firm in Miami puts it much more bluntly: “Stop victimizing yourself! I hear complaints all the time like, ‘Oh, I’m a minority and it’s stacked against me.’ Well, find someone you want to be like. You’re not going to get better sitting at home.”

So while the “culture” argument for returning to the office might be overblown or just nonsense, you have to play the game if you want that brilliant Big Law career.

In other words: Suck it up.

To contact the reporter on this story: Vivia Chen in New York at