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ANALYSIS: RTO or WFH? Attorneys and Employers Find Common Ground

June 29, 2022, 9:00 AM

Return-to-office policies are more closely aligned with attorneys’ RTO preferences than might be expected, according to Bloomberg Law’s inaugural State of Practice Survey conducted last month. In fact, employers and employees are in closer agreement regarding work arrangements than they were last October, perhaps indicating that as the pandemic turns into an endemic, both sides recognize the need for greater flexibility regarding RTO requirements.

It’s now been more than two years since Covid-19 changed the professional and personal lives of attorneys around the world, leaving a lasting impact on how, when, and where lawyers are expected to work.

Bloomberg Law’s survey asked 507 law firm and in-house attorneys about their current work environments, including how their employers’ return-to-office expectations compare with the attorneys’ own RTO preferences.

When asked how many days per week attorneys are expected to be in the office as of May 2022, the majority of respondents reported that they either have complete flexibility or are expected to come in at least two to three days per week. More specifically, 31% of attorney respondents reported having flexibility regarding coming into the office or working from home, while another 31% of respondents reported that they are required to come in at least three times a week.

Only 12% of respondents reported that they are expected to be in full-time, highlighting the fact that firms are not returning—or have not yet returned—to an everyday, in-office work model.

When asked about their ideal work week, a quarter of the respondents indicated that they prefer to work remotely full-time. Working in the office two days per week (20%) was the next most favored option, followed by three days per week (19%). Fifteen percent of respondents reported that they’d like to work in an office setting full-time.

Attorneys’ preferences this year line up closer to their employers’ expectations than I was originally anticipating. One explanation for this might be the Great Resignation: Law firms are battling to attract and retain talent, and are thus listening closely to the requests and demands of their current employees. It will be interesting to see whether the preferences/expectations dynamic changes if the looming recession becomes a reality.

Breaking the data on attorney preferences down even further—by professional title—revealed that most associates (30%) and senior associates (42%) prefer to work remotely full-time, while managing partners prefer to either work in-person two days per week (31%) or work in the office full-time (24%). This gap in attorney experience levels may be linked to a generational shift in attitudes about work. While partners have worked in-person full time for the majority of their careers, newer associates have spent much of their work life at home, potentially making them more amenable to a change in location.

Remote/Hybrid Work Here to Stay?

There are likely a variety of reasons why most attorneys prefer a flexible work environment. The first one that comes to mind is that legal professionals worked around the clock even pre-pandemic, with their assignments often following them home, so a hybrid work model may almost feel “normal.”

Remote work also allows for a better work-life balance, providing attorneys with more time for family, personal tasks, and self-care. For example, attorneys—especially in big cities—now spend less time commuting to and from the office, allowing them to better allot this chunk of time. That said, working from home may make it harder for attorneys to disconnect from work, and there’s a risk that a hybrid work model could ultimately have the opposite effect.

Regardless of the reasons, we can likely all agree that remote and hybrid work environments are here to stay. As we work to find our footing in a post-pandemic world, it will be important for firms and legal departments to continue to understand and value the preferences of their attorneys in order to develop and maintain the best return-to-office policies for their teams.

Related content is available for free on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page. Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our Surveys, Reports & Data Analysis, Legal Operations, In Focus: Lawyer Development, and Return-to-Office Toolkit resources.

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