The legal community, along with nearly all other professions, made the transition from a largely in-office work environment, with some notable exceptions, to remote work during the pandemic. With society beginning to open back up, law firms are talking about having their team of attorneys make the shift back into the office. But after nearly a year and a half of working from home, many lawyers have gotten comfortable with remote work and are voicing their preferences to employers.
Working in the legal field is a competitive environment where making such requests may not bode well for lawyers making the ask. Now, attorneys are left wondering what, if any, are the consequences of asking their employer to make remote work a long-term option?
Backlash From Early Reopening Attempts
As a legal recruiter, I have an advantage knowing what both law firm leadership and attorneys are leaning toward in this work environment discussion. Some law firms and in-house employers already have made public announcements that they will be expecting their attorneys to return to the office full time soon.
These announcements were often met with backlash from their employees who feel remote work offers a greater work-life balance, something the legal community is constantly struggling to provide. Many firms saw this response and are now reevaluating their return to the office policies.
At this point, the majority of firms are at the stage of reintroducing working in the office instead of making heavy demands that risk pushback. Most firms are beginning to encourage their lawyers to start a slow move into the office post-Labor Day this year with a goal of working in the office two to three times a week.
The hope is to use a voluntary and flexible approach and get employees slowly acclimated to working in an office environment after being remote for so long. The goal for many firms is to have most lawyers back in the office full time by the start of the new year, pending the state of the virus.
While the goal is to have people working a hybrid in-office and at-home schedule post Labor Day, firms are also keenly aware of the new Covid-19 delta variant rapidly spreading across the country. Firms are still encouraging their attorneys to begin the transition to the office a few times a week but are simultaneously continuing to strongly encourage their employees to get the vaccine.
Many firms are not permitting their employees to enter the office unless they have proof that they received the Covid-19 vaccine. Firms have stated they will evaluate special situations where employees cannot receive the vaccine on a case-by-case basis and require those individuals to wear a mask and receive weekly Covid-19 tests. At this point, most law firms have about 80% to 95% of employees fully vaccinated.
Hybrid and Remote Work Not (Yet) a Risk
There is a consistent curiosity across the board from lawyers who work in firms and in the private sector about the current state of this work environment limbo.
A major concern of lawyers is the risk of job security if they decide they want to continue working remotely but their employer has not announced its future plans. There has not been any evidence of law firms offering a pay difference to employees who agree to come back to the office full time, compared to co-workers who opt to work from home, as we have seen at some companies.
Another concern is that remote employees may get passed up for promotions because they have decided to work remotely. But again, there are no indications of that being the case. In fact, the demand for talented attorneys is very strong, and most attorneys are still working remotely, so there has not been a need to address these scenarios. The key is for attorneys seeking promotions to continue to do excellent work and maintain strong relationships with partners and clients.
Job Hunting for Flexible Work Schedules
There are, however, more lawyers leaving their current positions to find a law firm or company that is offering a hybrid model or fully remote position now.
After nearly a year and a half at home, lawyers increasingly are deciding to look for new job opportunities because they have an issue with their current employer’s work-from-home policy or firms are not being flexible, in addition to the usual reasons.
The pandemic has permitted lawyers to more easily job hunt and attend interviews over a video call, instead of having to take time out of their workday to travel to a new firm or company to interview.
The lawyers who are looking to relocate are finding that discussing remote work is coming up naturally during interviews, and recruiters are already having that discussion with law firm hiring teams to better match candidates with employers.
The bottom line is that most law firms and in-house employers are taking their time encouraging employees to return to the office. Right now, lawyers do not need to worry about risking their job security or missing a promotion because they prefer to continue working remotely. Firms are aware of lawyers’ desire to have a hybrid work schedule or fully remote option and are making decisions thoughtfully as society begins opening back up.
Lawyers should feel comfortable starting that conversation with their employer, and if they find the direction of the work policies is not to their liking, many lawyers are already working with legal recruiters to look for alternative job opportunities at places that better fit their preferences.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
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Michelle Foster is a former law firm partner and the founder of the Foster Group, a boutique agency specializing in legal consulting. She has relationships in the legal community and with hiring and managing partners of top-tier firms nationwide.