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Lawyers Are Flouting the Return-to-Office Mandate

Oct. 24, 2022, 8:00 AM

For all you law firm partners out there who believe that it’s high time for the troops to stop the nonsense of remote work and get back to the office, I have some friendly advice: Get over it.

As much as you might pine away for the good old pre-pandemic days when the office buzzed with activity, it’s not happening. From what I’ve been hearing, folks are flouting the return-to-office mandate. And firms can’t (or won’t) do a damn thing about it.

The remote work genie is out of the bottle, so it behooves firms to acknowledge that reality. Recent studies show that lawyers, particularly younger ones, put a premium on remote work.

VIDEO: In December of 2021, leaders from some of the country’s biggest law firms shared their return to office plans and talked about whether hybrid work is here to stay.

In a survey by the American Bar Association, 44% of lawyers with 10 years or less of experience say they’ll jump ship for a job that offers more freedom for remote work. By contrast, only 13% of those with 41 years or longer in practice say they’d quit. (But is that because they’re too old to get hired?)

Even partners show little appetite to go back to the office full time. Recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, which analyzed responses from over 1,800 partners in a survey released this month, finds that over two-thirds of partners want the option to work remotely.

And the more junior the partner, the greater the importance of that option. Junior partners are more than twice as likely as the most senior partners to quit over remote work restrictions—16% for partners with one to five years of tenure versus 7% for those in the 20+ years category.

“Firms have been trying for months to increase office attendance, but it appears that these efforts have not resulted in lawyers flocking back to the office,” said Roberta Liebenberg, one of the authors of the ABA report. “I don’t envision lawyers returning to the pre-pandemic norm of five days a week in the office, and instead three days in the office will probably remain the norm for a large percentage of lawyers.”

‘A Pipe Dream’

“Expecting lawyers to go to the office four or five days a week is a pipe dream,” said Jeff Lowe, the author of the MLA report. “Firms that demand it are getting a very mixed reaction.”

But are lawyers even going in three days a week?

Not as much as firms would like us to believe. Though I’ve talked to partners who claim that the turnout is “great,” from what I can tell, it’s not quite the case. The ones who follow the rules seem to be the very young or those who are eager beavers.

“All our first and second years come in almost everyday,” a partner at a Wall Street firm told me, noting that they’re “uber Type-As” who worked on the law review or clerked for federal judges. This partner also estimates that the attendance rate is “about 50% on Monday, 65 to 70% Tuesday to Thursday, 40% on Friday. We are probably doing better than average, but not much.”

Often partners are the ones dissing the attendance policy. “The problem is that partners aren’t coming in,” said a senior associate at another big firm in New York, noting how many partner offices were empty during the summer. “They stayed put in their big houses in Connecticut or the Hamptons. I barely know what some of these guys look like.”

Even now when there’s supposedly a big push to return to pre-pandemic levels, some partners show up “maybe occasionally,” this associate added. “But the paralegals are always here.”

Despite all the chest-beating about returning to “pre-pandemic levels”—whatever that means—the reality is that remote work among the lawyer class is so prevalent that it would be impossible to revert back to the old boots-on-the-ground days.

The ABA study, which tabulated responses from about 2,000 lawyers during May 31 to June 15, reports that 89% of firm lawyers and 86% of corporate legal department counsel are able to work remotely. In comparison, only 58% of U.S. workers in a range of employment have that privilege, according to a report by McKinsey & Company.

The ABA also finds that there are as many lawyers working from home “almost all the time” as there are those who go the office almost “100%"—in both cases it’s 30%; the remainder 40% have a hybrid arrangement.

With so many lawyers partaking of flexible work arrangements, why are firms and corporations pushing lawyers to return to the office? Clearly no sane firm will fire a lawyer who’s billing a ton of hours just because she refuses to show up three times a week.

The best argument is that young lawyers need in-person training. The other argument is that firm culture is lost when the office stands empty.

The more cynical view is that firms are testing who’s really serious about playing the law firm game. “I think firms are nervous people will leave,” Austin recruiter Karen Vladeck said about mandatory attendance. “But I also think some firms are using it as a way to weed people out. ”

To contact the reporter on this story: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com
Twitter: @viviachen
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Alison Lake at alake@bloombergindustry.com