To return, or not to return: is the pre-pandemic office life coming back to legal?

Just like going remote one year ago due to the pandemic, returning to offices now creates lots of concerns for law firms. Vaccines promise to bring the pandemic to an end, changing the way businesses have operated during the past year. Again, the fear of change hits the legal workplace. Like in the spring of 2020, it is time for law firms to make a decision. Are we coming back to office life?

What do law firms think about returning to offices right now? 

What is happening right now can be called the period of ambiguity that happens on the precipice of the unknown. A lot of law firms start requiring only three days in the office, as an alternative to the traditional five days office schedule. Some law managers are even more flexible, supporting the option of full-time remote work even after the quarantine is over. In general, the hybrid model is being widely implemented across workplaces. Gabrielle Massari shared why her firm favors the hybrid model:

“It’s important to have days when the entire team is together at the office, as working together benefits our clients and ourselves, however, there are days of the week where much of the work can be completed independently.”

Gabrielle Massari
A marketing director at Hancock Injury Attorneys

Other firms are expecting to get back to their offices full-time. Recently, Sullivan & Cromwell “strongly encouraged” July’s full office return, signaling that some firms still hope to get back to the old times as soon as possible.

However, most firms are still puzzled about the right solution. In a recent survey, 66% of law firms said they are still working on a post-pandemic plan or don’t have one at all.

So why do most law firms not support pre-COVID office life?

Flexibility is what helps to save money on office spaces and invest money more mindfully in things like legal technologies and workplace improvements. For instance, the saved money helped many big law firms reconsider the technological aspects of physical offices, such as creating “telepresence rooms” with advanced audio-visual systems.

Work-life balance is one more reason to reconsider the traditional office schedule. The pandemic made people rethink the time spent on commute, work, and personal life. According to the recent Bloomberg survey, 39% of 1000 US adult participants said they would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work, and the most common reason for that is better time management, and the fear of overtime work.

Elizabeth Ricci shared her insights on work-life balance considering the remote experience of her firm:

“Those firms who went remote, even partially, likely learned that the convenience, cost and time savings of being remote outweighed the discomfort of not being full time in the traditional bricks and mortar firm”

Elizabeth Ricci
An award-winning AV-rated immigration attorney practicing for almost 20 years, Managing Partner at Rambana & Ricci.

Remote working options are also connected with embracing diversity and equity in the legal profession. Many women lawyers face the ongoing conflict of splitting time between career and family. Therefore, a flexible working schedule or a hybrid model becomes a significant solution to create a fair work structure across firms. 

Elizabeth Ricci said that although the current policy in her firm is a traditional 8 am to 5 pm office model, one assistant whose child care arrangements changes is able to come in later. Besides, being a mother herself, Elizabeth is working most time from home with her husband: “This also enables us to be with our children more and enjoy what we have been working toward the last 20 years.

Another reason why law firms do not plan to restore pre-pandemic office life is to attract and retain tomorrow’s lawyers. As the recent research shows, 49% of the respondents saying they will consider quitting if their company is not flexible about WFH were millennials and Gen Z. If firms want to access this talent pool, they will need to remain flexible even after the pandemic.

So where do law firms go from here — in or out of office?

Full remote is rarely an option

Remote work may have opened our eyes to multiple issues of office life, but it does not always provide a better alternative. For some law firms, remote work brings more harm than good. Tahmina Watson emphasized the challenges her firm faces:

“Immigration law is paper-heavy as most applications are filed by mail with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Sometimes these applications can consist of 500 or more pages that must be sent to the government in duplicate- one for adjudication by USCIS, the other for visa processing by the embassy. We have to be in the office in person for administrative preparation, review, copying, and shipping.”

Tahmina Watson
A founder of The Washington Immigrant Defense Network

For some, remote work is still a true challenge in terms of self-management, even after the last year. Every person has an individual work style, and remote just may not work for everybody. For many, office is a special place to concentrate on work and get things done. Take it from Jordan Peagler, a partner and founder at MKP Law Group, LLP.

I like the structure and uniformity of working at work. We are already a paperless firm, so for us, the office is a way to get out of our homes and focus on work but is not necessarily critical to us to get our jobs done.

Jordan Peagler
A partner and founder at MKP Law Group, LLP

So what’s the alternative? Here comes in handy a so-called hybrid model. Ted Kaplun, a managing partner at KaplunMarx, shared his predictions on how the hybrid model will define the future work:

“The likelihood is we will adapt to using some sort of hybrid mix with our people rotating workdays in the office and from home — this will provide flexibility for our staff. Allowing for a better work/life balance will be one of the few positives to come out of the pandemic.”

Ted Kaplun
An injury lawyer and a managing partner at KaplunMarx

For now, the hybrid model seems to be the most suitable option among top law firms, acting as a compromise solution. In the end, it’s all a question of balance.

The new normal. In the midst of all this uncertainty, one thing is clear — the office workplace as we knew it is not coming back. The genie is out of the box. Too many talented professionals have had enough of a traditional office schedule and are actively seeking change. Workplace improvements, such as the culture of flexibility, inclusivity, and a hybrid model will hopefully thrive once the pandemic is finally behind. While we’re still in this gray zone, it’s good to ask yourself: is your company prepared for the change?

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