Offices are open. Employees are coming back. But it won’t be an easy return. “Returning is going to pose one of the most complex financial-cultural-operational-technological-recruiting and retention-organizational challenges that law firms have faced in years,” one observer noted. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, because firms’ rules will need to reflect the makeup of each firm. Key differences include:
- Generational distribution within the workforce
- Practice areas’ need to be together in the office
- Individuals’ work assignments—e.g., drafting vs. brainstorming
- Personal preferences
One of the most disruptive areas of change relates to the need to attract and retain talent. Living through the two-year pandemic aberration changed people’s minds about the importance of work, the place of work in their lives, the ability to work effectively from anywhere, and the importance of being valued and sharing values. Now they want their workplaces to change, too.
Law firm associates want to be treated as individuals and future leaders rather than as fungible worker bees putting in crazy long hours to meet billable hour requirements. Other non-equity lawyers want to be acknowledged for their skills instead of denigrated for their lack of interest in attaining equity status. Marketing and management staff no longer want to be relegated to a “non-lawyer” category (i.e., less important, less bright but necessary). All these understandable desires run up against traditional firm cultures, which:
- measure and reward time instead of results,
- believe that in-person collaboration and communication provide the only environment in which new lawyers can learn the art of lawyering, and
- assume small leadership cohorts should make decisions for everyone without asking for or paying attention to the opinions of the rest of the firm.
Let’s look at some of the specific areas of disconnect and possible solutions.
Hybrid Office Rules That Maximize Individual Flexibility and Autonomy
Most employees do not want to return to the 2019 office. They want to continue the taste of choice they had when COVID-19 sent everyone home: the ability to work from anywhere and set their own work schedule and work hours. They remember the positives of remote work: time flexibility, better integration of work into their whole life, and an opportunity to focus on what’s important. They forget the negatives of burnout, loneliness, and inability to set work boundaries.
For firm leadership, two important elements emerge:
- The need to structure work to maximize productivity and collaboration while addressing remote/in-office scheduling and the causes of burnout.
- What kind of scheduling will meet the demand for flexible work time, the right to work away from the office, and the need for productive teams?
- What kind of manager-employee communication creates a workplace that people want to be part of?
- The need to respond to the emphasis on values—personally important and also important as part of firm culture.
- How do you show that a person is valued?
- How do you help them develop the skills needed to progress in a career?
- Is the firm’s mission larger than just making more money for equity partners? How does it help improve the world?
A Framework for Hybrid Office Work
Schedules are essential as a framework for work. There needs to be some certainty as to where people are, when. At the same time, employers should assume nonlinear days and asynchronous work schedules are consequences of remote work options and flexible work schedules. According to a Future Forum survey, 76% of non-executive knowledge workers want flexibility in where they work and 93% want flexibility in when they work.
Some possible ways to establish a modern framework that balances the competing needs:
- Invest in modern technology and make sure that everyone has similar equipment for their home office.
- Maximize use of technology that encourages and supports communication up, down, and sideways.
- Require everyone to be in the office two to three days a week, or require teams and colleagues who work with them to set days when they are together in person.
- Facilitate individual flexibility regarding when and where people work, balancing it with established times for collaboration.
- Address personal burnout by setting “core hours” when everyone has to be online or offline. Make weekends email-free time. Expect people to have work-free weekends most of the time.
A Framework for Recognition
Few law firm associates spread tales of partner kindnesses. Rather, they complain about overwork and negative feedback. What they want is appreciation for what they do and a feeling of personal interest in them and their career from those they report to. Law firm leaders at all levels, from managing partner to team leader, need to learn to use emotional intelligence to understand their own hot buttons, control them, and listen to their subordinates with empathy and interest.
“The Future Forum puts it another way, advising executives to embrace flexibility, reward inclusion, and build connection through transparency─in other words, pay attention to what staff want and give it to them.”
To address employee demands, law firm leaders and managers need to create training and development opportunities for everyone in the firm. Online training programs can supplement in-person opportunities to watch and learn. This changes the tone of the culture because when programs connect with individuals’ needs, they feel invested in, and this makes them feel happier about their work and their firm.
Some strategies to respond to employees’ requests for training, career planning, and values alignment:
- Include training in the firm culture and necessary soft skills as part of the onboarding process. In addition, pair each new hire with a peer-level mentor to support them as they learn the ropes.
- Encourage “job crafting,” the process through which employees have input into their roles. It increases their motivation to succeed because it demonstrates that the firm is willing to invest in them.
- “Agile firms” that can attract and keep talent will “redefine productivity to include ongoing learning, . . . and identify advancement opportunities for every employee.”
- Leaders will encourage transparency. Rather than decree how it will be, they will discuss their ideas with the people who will be impacted by them and try to incorporate their feedback.
- Invest too in leader training, especially for next-generation leaders. Actively look for nascent leaders among the rank and file, those informal leaders whom others follow.
- Gen Z and millennial employees want to work for firms whose values align with theirs. To meet them halfway, firms should share their values and work with interested employees to implement them through concrete activities.
“The days of command and control management are gone. Employees are now in the driver’s seat. … [E]ncourage intentional listening (listening with intent to understand not the intent to respond) to find out what they [employees] want and need to be happy and successful.”
Of course, this discussion of remote work options, flexible work time, and robust, firmwide training avoids the elephant in the room─equating productivity to billable hours instead of to results. Other knowledge firms─accountants, consultants─set prices based on the value of their knowledge, rather than the time needed to produce results. As AI tools, apps, and programs become more common in law firms, the move away from billable hours as the basic revenue generator will move faster. To continue to make money, firms will have to transition to results-based measurements.
This article suggests new interactions between leaders and led, all designed to attract and retain talent, a necessary competitive advantage for any firm. The next article will focus on ways to restructure firms to support DEI─diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Bruce MacEwen, “Back to the Office! (Say What?),” July 25, 2021, https://www.adamsmithesq.com/2021/07/back-to-the-office-say-what/ ↑
Future Forum is a research group backed by Slack. Nicole Kobie, “Why Bosses are Inflexible About Flexible Work Arrangements,” November 22, 2021, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/employers-flexible-working-post-pandemic ↑
Adapted from Meighan Newhouse, “Breaking With Tradition: Cultural Shifts Laws Firms Must Embrace to Attract and Retain Talent,” March 4, 2022. https://www.law.com/njlawjournal/2022/03/04/breaking-with-tradition-cultural-shifts-law-firms-must-embrace-to-attract-and-retain-talent/ ↑