Undoubtedly, as most other professional fields, the legal field has been faced with managing their talent’s increased desire to work in a hybrid or a remote environment, since the pandemic demonstrated they could do so effectively. As some workplaces are requiring their employees to come back to the office, a significant percentage of attorneys has voiced their desire to have flexibility when it comes to where they work.
Attorneys’ Preferences & Law Firms’ Competition
In a recent survey conducted by the American Lawyer, around 350 attorneys from 65 law firms answered questions regarding their thoughts about different kinds of work environments. The majority of the 350 respondents noted that their firms sought three days in the office. Furthermore, of that majority, most noted that they wanted in-person work only one to two days a week, or not at all, and instead to have the option to work fully remotely. Overall, around two-thirds of the total number of respondents—meaning regardless of what their current work situation was—expressed that they wanted more flexibility (Roe, 2022).
In addition to this, firms are competing against not only other law firms, but also against in-house opportunities in different industries. This includes legal technology companies, legal operations firms, and other companies who are providing more flexibility in terms of work environment (Smith, 2022). This competition for talent is putting further pressure on firms to address work environment concerns for their current and prospective attorneys.
For several years now, the legal industry has grappled with retaining lawyers who wish to have not only a satisfying career, but also a fulfilling personal life. The pandemic revealed that attorneys could work remotely and be productive. Without distractions of a social office, attorneys often billed more from home and could tuck their children into bed at night or pursue a hobby. While there certainly are several challenges with endorsing a hybrid/remote work environment, the benefit of retaining high-producing talent is far worth the effort of implementing remote initiatives.
Challenges & Solutions
Maintaining law firm culture, training and integrating attorneys, and fostering professional development are all challenges that arise when embarking on a remote work environment. Nonetheless, there are several virtual law firm models that have been successful, and it’s becoming more mainstream for law firms to have a mix of in-office, hybrid, and remote attorneys.
Maintaining a Cohesive Firm Culture
Culture is one of the bigger concerns with attorneys working remotely (Hudgins, 2022). How can a firm’s cultural identity be maintained when employees are dispersed amongst numerous locations? Multiple points of connection to the firm are important in maintaining firm culture. Husch Blackwell, a Missouri-based AM Law 100 law firm that has embraced the virtual platform by adding a fully remote office called “The Link,” has several committees that exist to ensure full integration into the culture. They also host “monthly townhall meetings, virtual coffee chats, healthy living challenges and … periodic fun, social events” (Husch Blackwell, personal communication, May 27, 2022). Quinn Emanuel, the world’s largest law firm that focuses strictly on business litigation and arbitration, has in the past number of months created a new policy that allows employees to work from anywhere. In order to maintain their culture, they have “increase[ed] offsite gatherings for groups of attorneys” (Quinn et al., 2022). Working remotely doesn’t necessarily mean never interacting in person with fellow co-workers.
In addition, firms have demonstrated that they’re committed to continuing to provide stability while providing workplace flexibility. For example, all attorneys working at The Link are assigned a brick-and-mortar office. In continuing their efforts to help their attorneys stay engaged in the culture of the firm, Husch encourages these attorneys to “visit and work from any of [their] physical offices at any time” (Husch Blackwell, personal communication, May 27, 2022). These modifications have helped in attracting, recruiting, and retaining talent. This is also the case with Quinn Emanuel, as all of their attorneys have an “’office base’” where they can conduct in-person meetings, engage in team building, and prepare for trials—but again, only if they think they need to, as there is no requirement at all for attendance at this firm (Quinn et al., 2022).
Training and Integration of New Hire & Remote Attorneys
How can an associate who’s new to a firm be productive working out of the office? Sure, once an attorney is already comfortable with a firm, it’s likely the case that they can more easily transition to remote work. That doesn’t mean that onboarding new hires needs to come with additional concern, though. Thankfully, today’s technology has come a long way, and so has the professional’s comfort level with utilizing it. With Husch, “[e]ven if an attorney is physically present in one of [their] offices, it is likely that they will have multiple training sessions done remotely with a trainer in one of [their] other offices” (Husch Blackwell, personal communication, May 27, 2022). So, virtual engagement allows not only for remote attorneys to interact and receive their training, but it can also be useful for on-site attorneys, too. As Quinn Emanuel’s policy is still being ironed out, they have made note that they, too, “will rely on remote technologies to ensure new associates are integrated” (Quinn et al., 2022). Purported advances in technology may not always be a step forward for humanity, but firms should take advantage of the ease in communication that technology offers, as it can successfully streamline their onboarding process.
Building Relationships Virtually
Hiring a remote attorney can pose challenges with building trusting relationships, impactful mentoring, and naturally occurring professional development opportunities. Building trusting relationships among partners and associates, as well as partners and their peers, is always at the crux of a productive law firm. California-based Am Law 100 law firm Cooley has recently made the decision to allow its employees to choose from where they want to work. Cooley’s chair has noted that they “will each have different perspectives, desires and unique life circumstances dictating [their] decisions around how much of [their] work life to conduct in the office” (Tribe, 2022). Simply giving attorneys this freedom to choose their workplace can increase the likelihood that associates will feel respected, thereby allowing them to more easily develop healthy relationships with the firm’s partners.
Impactful mentoring and the fair distribution of work among associates is also vital for a firm’s success. At Husch, mentoring occurs with partners meeting virtually with associates who are not in the office “so that they have an equal opportunity to be mentored, learn their practice of law, and develop their careers and work towards partnership” (Husch Blackwell, personal communication, May 27, 2022). They also offer professional development programs both virtually and in-person on a multitude of topics, including client industries, practice areas, firm operations, business development, and career management (Husch Blackwell, personal communication, May 27, 2022). All of this can level the playing field of attorneys’ growth. It’s also often assumed that attorneys who are present in the office are more naturally given work, while those working remotely may be forgotten. There is reason to believe this doesn’t have to be the case, as firms have expressed that “[n]o matter if [their] … associates are working [virtually] … or are in the office on a daily basis, they receive equal mentoring, training, and development opportunities” (Husch Blackwell, personal communication, May 27, 2022). Firms are cognizant of the fact that their off-site attorneys are as worthy of being given opportunities as their on-site attorneys are.
Hiring Traits for Remote Attorneys
The desire to work from home is not enough to be successful. Remote working requires discipline and effort on the attorney’s part and not every person is up for that challenge. Thus, before embarking on hiring a remote attorney, identifying character traits in attorneys who will be successful in a hybrid or fully remote work environment is extremely important. An attorney “will need to be a self-starter and able to balance their work life and home life” (Husch Blackwell, personal communication, May 27, 2022). Additionally, strong communication skills and the ability to collaborate well are especially important traits for those working virtually. It’s also interesting to note that while one firm might allow first-year associates to work fully remotely, as does Quinn Emanuel, another firm like Husch Blackwell reserves its fully remote work for associates who have more experience (Quinn et al., 2022). Thus, ultimately, it is up to the discretion of firms to decide who can work remotely.
Remote Work Requires a Fresh Perspective
In order for law firms’ attorneys to be successful in hybrid or remote work environments, having a fresh perspective on how to maintain culture, integrate employees, and encourage professional development, is essential. Today, lawyers are often rethinking where and how they practice. Hence, there’s an increased need for law firms to reevaluate their approach to how their firm operates now and in the future. Slight modifications to make everyone’s professional and personal commitments work will make that firm stand out amongst their competition.
If you have any concerns or questions about effectively navigating a remote legal work environment, either as an attorney or leader of a firm, or have questions about effectively marketing yourself as an attorney or your firm to prospective employees, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for a consultation.
Gialanella, D. (2022, May 04). In the great reevaluation, firms and lawyers are reconsidering their situations. The American Lawyer. https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2022/05/04/in-the-great-reevaluation-firms-and-lawyers-are-reconsidering-their-situations/
Hudgins, V. (2022, May 06). For hybrid to work longterm, law firm processes need refresh. The American Lawyer. https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2022/05/06/for-hybrid-to-work-longterm-firm-processes-need-refresh/
Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. (2022). Work from anywhere. Quinn Emanuel trial lawyers. https://www.quinnemanuel.com/work-from-anywhere/
Roe, D. (2022, May 05). Want to thin your law firm’s head count? Mandate 3 or more days of office attendance. The American Lawyer. https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2022/05/05/want-to-thin-your-law-firms-head-count-mandate-3-or-more-days-of-office-attendance/
Smith, P. (2022, May 06). It will take ‘more than food’: Big law staff are balking at office mandates. The American Lawyer. https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2022/05/06/it-will-take-more-than-food-big-law-staff-are-balking-at-office-mandates/
Tribe, M. (2022, April 20). Cooley tells lawyers they can mostly stay home as offices ‘open.’ Bloomberg Law. https://news.bloomberglaw.com/business-and-practice/cooley-tells-lawyers-they-can-mostly-stay-home-as-offices-open