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Vivia Chen: Associates Want to Return to the Office—With Caveats

Aug. 6, 2021, 4:13 PM

Attention law firm leaders: Fabulous news. Those young associates floating in your office (or on Zoom) aren’t quite the delicate snowflakes you thought they were.

Despite all the talk about how they’ll never, ever return to working full time in the office—a poll by Morning Consult on behalf of Bloomberg News finds that 49% of millennials and Gen Z would quit their jobs if remote work isn’t allowed—some youngins aren’t automatically dissing it.

“I think it would be stabilizing to be in the office,” says a recent graduate of Columbia Law School who’s joining a Magic Circle firm in the fall. “My second year summer was completely remote so it’d be cool to meet some real people.”

Even young lawyers who are adamantly opposed to returning to the office full time might do so under the right circumstances. A third-year litigation associate at a Washington, D.C.-based firm who initially said he’d quit “if they forced us to return full time,” softened when presented with the possibility—fantasy, really—of capping his work week at 50 hours. “The ability to stop working at some point—and not feel guilty for it—is critical,” he says.

The popular perception is that young lawyers want to lounge in sweatpants all day and work wherever they please—be it the beach, their parents’ basement or a treehouse. But what they really want is something both prosaic and elusive: work/life balance and an affirmation of their humanity.

A lawyer’s life has never been warm and fuzzy but this past year has been outright brutal—and the pressure isn’t abating. According to the latest update to Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey, lawyers’ misery has continued into the second quarter of this year. The report finds that “respondents report experiencing burnout more often, and nearly half report a decline in well-being.” Moreover, compared to the previous quarter, “the percentage of respondents with a job satisfaction score of 7 or higher dips to 44%.”

So now that some partners are pressuring folks to return to the office, are firms addressing these lingering issues of exhaustion—both physical and mental?

The answer is no. Despite all the talk about mental health, the kumbaya Zoom gatherings spurred by the pandemic and the social justice movement, and the smorgasbord of wellness seminars offered by firms, associates say that firms are oblivious at best about how much they are at the end of their ropes.

They’ll also tell you that partners just don’t get it. “Money is what people go into Big Law for, and partners think we should be more interested in making partner and making more money,” says the litigation associate. “It feels doable to them so they think they can tempt us by paying us more. I don’t think they feel the attrition we’re seeing.” He adds that the salary increases and Covid bonuses aren’t helping. “We get paid so much already but more money will not address my issues. It’s actually worse because it puts more pressure on people to work harder.”

Clearly, the money that Big Law has thrown at young lawyers to assuage their pain isn’t doing the trick. “They could give me multiples of tens of thousands of dollars, but there’s not much you can do with it if you’re working all the time,” says a 2018 law school grad who left two major firms during the pandemic. (She says her second Big Law job was even worse than the first: “I pulled more all nighters in the five months I was at my second firm than all the two years at my first firm.”) Now working at a startup, she says “At a certain point, [money] is meaningless. It gets to the point where my mental health is worth more.”

Some young lawyers say they’d trade not only their freedom but their compensation for less pressure. “I could probably live on $150,000,” admits another junior associate who works for a New York firm “Well, maybe $200,000 if we’re talking about living in an expensive city like New York, but that would have to mean no work after 9 p.m. on weekdays and no weekends!”

Such a simple request—but who are we kidding? Between giving young lawyers regular hours but requiring them to show up full time in the office or working them to death but allowing them to do so wherever they want, is there any doubt which option Big Law would pick?

The dirty little secret is that firms made a ton of money this year by pushing lawyers to the brink—and remote work helped make it happen. “We think associates are working harder from home than they ever could in the office because they’re truly 24/7 and have no commute or business entertaining or much of a social life,” says a New York-based corporate partner. “So bringing them back in the office will reduce billables.”

If there’s no business reason to call the troops back to the office, why are some partners insisting on it? My sense from talking with associates and partners is that many aren’t taking the command that seriously. “We’ve already proven we can work hard this past year,” says the litigation associate. “I don’t know anyone except maybe a few partners and that Morgan Stanley guy who’s pushing it.” He adds that associates work at the mercy of individual partners, and that firm directives will probably be ignored.

The young lawyers I spoke to have few illusions—and even fewer hopes—that Big Law will evolve to be a kinder, gentler place. While the debate on returning to the office touches on issues of individual autonomy, the truth is that Big Law doesn’t give anyone much control.

“Clients are used to instant service,” says a former corporate associate who left a New York firm known for its international practice because of “crazy, insane” hours. Now working remotely from Austin with a startup, he says, “it’s tough [to have reasonable hours] because clients want things right away,” alluding to the demanding private equity clients he used to service. “Firms need to stand up for themselves when clients set unrealistic deadlines.”

Firms standing up to clients? What is he smoking in the Texas Hill country?

In the meantime, some young lawyers are willing to go back to the office—though they’d like to do it on their terms. What no one wants is to be forced back. “I hate how Corporate America is trying to bulldoze everyone back to the office,” says an associate based in Atlanta whose firm has so far been vague about its work policy. If the firm insisted, as she fears it might, “it’d feel like partners weren’t allowing space for us to be human,” she says.

But there are a few who actually can’t wait to go back to the firm, though perhaps not for the lofty reasons that advocates of traditional face time hope.

“I’m just sick of my apartment,” says the third year New York litigator. “I live in a studio and my ‘work space’ is like 18 inches away from my bed—and sometimes I just work in my bed and barely get up. The only change of scenery I have is going to the bathroom.”

To contact the columnist: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com

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