Firms' Post-COVID Office Plans Could Cost Them Talent

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Law firms are gradually bringing attorneys and staff back into the office this spring and summer, with many using the moment to reimagine what office life looks like. Experts say firms' ability to recruit and retain talent may hang in the balance of those decisions.

Many large law firms are asking attorneys to return to the office at least a few days a week following the Fourth of July holiday, while others are waiting until Labor Day to do so. As the return to the office is phased in, many firms are not requiring attendance, but instead are either allowing or encouraging attorneys to venture in a few days a week as they see fit.

The level of flexibility marks a shift from firms' pre-pandemic policies around remote work, and a handful of firms are leaning fully into the idea of remote work even after public health officials deem it completely safe to go back to the office.

Once offices are officially open, a number of firms are not requiring five days a week in the office, with many requiring three. Others are more flexible still, providing the option of continued full-time remote work for those who prefer it.

However, some firms are less open to continued remote work and have said they expect attorneys to return to the office full-time on the same schedules they worked before the pandemic.

"This whole thing is just a patchwork," said Noah Fiedler, a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP who provides practice guidance to lawyers and law firms. "You've got CDC guidance overlaid over state guidance overlaid over municipalities overlaid over firm culture."

How law firms approach reopening could drive attorneys away and onto the lateral market, Fiedler said.

Some attorneys will question why they have to go into the office and will look for a law firm that allows remote work. Others will be eager to go back into an office and may be frustrated with limits on that, he said.

"The visceral response to this seems to be deeply rooted, and I would expect you will see movement as a result of decisions on policies," he said.

According to April Campbell, executive director of the Association of Legal Administrators, most law firms are tailoring their plans to their firm's culture, with many surveying and re-surveying attorneys and staff to get a handle on their comfort level and preferences about returning to the office.

Some of those surveys ask whether staff are vaccinated against COVID-19, so the firm can understand what percentage of a given office is immunized, she added.

"Employee safety and peace of mind seem to definitely be a priority for firms," Campbell said.

Still, even where 100% of the office population is vaccinated, firms need to be mindful that childcare options that used to be available to parents may still not be available over the summer. For example, many summer camps have been canceled, Campbell said.

"A lot of firms are trying to be very supportive of employees and are being mindful of that issue working parents are having — what to do with their kids over the summer — and allowing people to work remotely still to manage that logistical problem," she said.

According to Duane Morris LLP employment partner Michael Cohen, law firms are at a pivotal moment where they have an unprecedented opportunity to make a dramatic change when it comes to remote work and what law firm office life looks like going forward.

"I was hopeful that firms would embrace what they have learned over the last 12 to 14 months, and recognize that flexibility is something that a lot of people really enjoy and create a more permanent hybrid approach," Cohen said.

He said he is somewhat disappointed in the plans he's seen so far, with many firms announcing they want to have all lawyers back at least three days a week, and others even requiring full-time in-person attendance.

"Some firms are in a rush to get everyone back in the office as soon as possible," he said.

That is a lost opportunity, according to Cohen, who said firms can both offer lawyers the flexibility to work where they want and can also save money on office space, reallocating those funds to things like technology, training and other workplace improvements.

"We've been given the opportunity to catch up and we're giving it back," he lamented.

In a March survey by Law360 Pulse in partnership with legal recruiter Major Lindsey & Africa, less than a quarter of 2,505 legal professionals were very eager to return to working full-time in the office, even if they were fully comfortable with the health and safety conditions. Nearly half said they would prefer to work at the office only a few days a week.

There were marked differences between partners, counsel and associates regarding preferences for back-to-work schedules. Partners were more likely than less high-ranking colleagues to welcome a five-day schedule, with 27% saying they would like to go back on that timeline, compared to only 16% of counsel and 7% of associates.

John Remsen Jr., a consultant to midsize law firms who operates a managing partners forum, said he often hears from senior partners in law firms who say they want to get back into the office in order to foster collegiality, collaboration and culture.

"A lot of senior partners and founding partners have that opinion. It's the way they think it needs to be," Remsen said. "I think if you look at the research it's pretty compelling that we can look at different ways of working, and if we want to attract and retain tomorrow's lawyers, we should be considering them."

Remsen recently surveyed 187 law firm managing partners and other leaders of mostly midsize law firms about their feelings on remote work at their law firms. Twenty-seven percent were strongly in favor of it and 39% were somewhat in favor.

Asked about their plans for working arrangements beyond the next six months, 66% said they are still working on a plan or don't have one at all, while 14% said they planned a full-time return to the office and 17% said they would create a hybrid model with some in-office and some remote work.

"My takeaway on this is that firms are still figuring it out," Remsen said. "It's full of minefields. The easiest answer is for everyone to come back in. But it's much more challenging to try to find this hybrid place."

--Additional reporting by Pamela Wilkinson and Gerald Schifman. Editing by Marygrace Murphy and Alyssa Miller.

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