August 30, 2022
August 30, 2022Law360
The pandemic forever changed law firms. While credible arguments are made about the depth and pace of these changes, doubts about the pandemic’s lasting impact on in-office work are mostly focused on the desirability of modifications to office life, not on the fundamental premise that law firms face substantial change.
But there is a new wrinkle — the apparent semipermanence of COVID-19. Without question, many firms made plans this spring, post-omicron, that assumed a significantly smaller impact of the virus on our professional operations. Firms yearned for a state of stability, even one with entirely new contours.
But this summer’s resurgent virus has eroded stability, disrupted reliable planning and introduced new management variables: How do we square understandable concerns with pandemic fatigue? How do we adjust sick leave? Are masks and air purifiers necessary again — and perhaps forever?
Several developments at our firm provide examples of how pandemic-predicated changes to office life have become irreversible. But even these changes may require fresh looks and adjustments, given the importance of looking three or four steps ahead, not just one.
1. Employees have restructured their lives over the past two years.
Faced with remote work as a reality, a virus that mutates and creates ongoing uncertainty, pressures from changing obligations of daily life, including childcare, and — in the urban areas where lawyers’ living spaces have historically been concentrated — little space, high housing costs and low housing supply, people have altered their lives since March 2020.
They moved away from the office — to suburbs, nearby cities, other states and sometimes other countries. Their elderly parents moved in with them. Their division of parenting or caretaking labor changed. Their expectations about how much time they would have to explore outside-of-work interests or attend to outside-of-work obligations were fundamentally altered. Or all of the above.
At Gilbert, for example, a quick survey of our employees suggested that over two-thirds of our 65 employees moved during the pandemic, and many of those were to places outside the Washington, D.C., metro area. Several had children. Some had parents move in with them. Several worked from different cities and in different time zones. Several became engaged or married.
These types of changes are among the most permanent of life events. Many of these changes would make a return to prepandemic working life more costly to lawyers than it was prepandemic — both in terms of actual monetary expense (e.g., longer commutes), and morale or psychic cost (e.g., insufficient time to pursue a hobby developed during the pandemic).
So while law firms are free to try and work against these changes or ignore them, they must acknowledge that attempting to force a return to prepandemic-style office life will trigger resistance because of these higher costs.
In any world, many employers may not have been willing to try to force employees to absorb such burdens. In the current labor market, we anticipate that even fewer will be willing to do so.
2: Macro trends reinforced the permanence of the pandemic’s effects on office life.
Some firms and industries will undoubtedly take the position that the imposition of these higher burdens on employees is appropriate or justified because of countervailing considerations like the preferences of certain clients or concerns about firm culture. But other economic and social trends that overlap with the pandemic have made that position increasingly untenable for many law firms.
Consider, for example, the market for lateral associate talent. For the last year and a half, large law firms and those that compete with them have been locked in an intense battle for legal talent. Associates have received major raises in salaries, with corresponding bonuses. Signing bonuses have reached six digits for certain associates.
But money is far from the only aspect on which law firms compete. Increasingly, lawyers in their 20s, 30s and early 40s are demanding increased flexibility — the flexibility to choose whether to come into the office, live near the office or be at home with the kids on some days.
We have seen this at our firm, where we asked employees in various roles at the firm to commit to a certain number of days per week or month. Throughout the discussions in calibrating those requirements, employees across roles have repeatedly noted how much they value the increased flexibility that was born out of the pandemic.
Our firm is not alone. Because of the competitive market for legal talent, the demand for flexibility has become an expectation. Law firms are offering increased flexibility to attorneys as a selling point, and many associates are willing to take less financial compensation in exchange for that flexibility, i.e., to pay for it in real dollars.
For law firm management, this dynamic creates a real choice. Perhaps some clients will choose to take their business elsewhere if the firm adopts a hybrid or more flexible set of in-office expectations, but lower expenses combined with a happier, more productive set of employees may more than make up the difference.
Those law firms that were able to capitalize on the transition to a more flexible work environment have slimmed down their real estate footprint or moved offices to a less expensive part of town and have frequently realized considerable and enduring cost savings as a result.
Now that more law firms are institutionalizing these changes — in their benefits offerings, in their hiring policies and in their real estate arrangements — trying to undo them will be either impractical, cost-prohibitive or simply impossible.
Nor are all clients the same. While certain clients may have preferences for law firms that force a prepandemic-style return to work, most clients are facing the same dynamics as their law firms. Indeed, many corporate clients are allowing their employees to work from anywhere, including their legal personnel, which introduces an added competitive consideration for law firms.
3: Day-to-day work has changed.
Those who once spent an hour commuting to work every day now have that extra hour, and have for more than two years. During the pandemic, they often worked that extra hour. When they did not — when they exercised or made breakfast for their families or read the newspaper or meditated — many employees felt that the quality of their work and lives improved dramatically.
Lawyers who were resistant to new technology were forced to become at least proficient in video conferencing and other collaborative technologies. The pandemic’s duration thus helped eliminate or mitigate at least some of the objections that had been lodged against work arrangements centered on increased flexibility.
Lawyers adjusted to an environment with minimal business travel — and even as business travel has picked up, it is evident that travel will not return to prepandemic levels. Lawyers who used to spend weeks of each month on the road are now facing a new reality with far less time at the airport. For many, that reality allows them more time to spend on personal and professional development.
These may seem like small changes, but their effects are outsized. At our firm, for example, many have remarked that avoiding the notorious traffic of the Washington, D.C., metro area has created an unexpectedly substantial transformation in their quality of life and quality of work.
Even attorneys who have spent 20 or 30 years commuting to work or on the road traveling for business have admitted that the habits they lived with for decades were imposing costs that were either unacknowledged or insufficiently weighted as a quality-of-life consideration.
As these dynamics have prompted wide-ranging evolution to law firm operations, some of our experiences may offer some insight into how other firms might strike the right balance between offering flexibility to employees and ensuring that they benefit from in-office collaboration, in-person training and a cohesive culture.
One idea is to ask employees to come into the office for some minimum amount of time, varying based on the employee’s role. Lawyers can be asked to choose to come in on days that in-office work will be most beneficial to them, instead of returning to prepandemic levels of in-office work.
At our firm, as a matter of practice, lawyers tend to come to the office for major case team meetings, or other meetings with larger numbers of attendees. Many of these meetings are held on the same days each week, which creates momentum throughout the firm for others to be at the office on those days — when they know other people will be there too.
Another idea is to hold firm administrative committee meetings at the office. While these meetings can and were done over Zoom during the height of the pandemic, many often involve deeper and longer discussions about law firm operations, hiring, training, staffing and other similar topics that benefit from in-office collaboration and discussion.
Firms can also charge employees with focusing on creating desirable and meaningful incentives for people to come to the office. This may mean a particularly effective in-office training. It may mean lunches to celebrate certain employees. Or it may mean enjoying a drink on the firm’s rooftop with colleagues one early evening.
While forcing fun and culture does not, in our experience, really work, we have found that if you offer informal opportunities for people to see their colleagues in a genuinely fun, low-pressure environment, they will seize those opportunities with enthusiasm.
None of this is to suggest that we or others have implemented increased flexibility with respect to remote work without issue.
We are still working to address challenges related to providing sufficient training opportunities and integrating new employees into the firm. Appointing a team of lawyers and staff to do a deep dive into onboarding, orientation and training can help address these challenges.
There are no easy answers, though an initial conclusion is that orientation and onboarding is now a longer process, and that deliberate effort will be required to accomplish some things that happened more organically when we were working in closer proximity.
While some of the burden of orientation and onboarding will fall on the new hire to take more initiative than he or she would have prepandemic, firms that are intentional about their work cultures and systems know that burden must be shared with the firm.
While some commentators have expressed legitimate concerns about the changed environment for law firms, what is undeniable is that the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed certain economic and social forces that, in our view, have permanently altered the legal services industry.
Some law firms may make the choice to resist those forces, but others are acknowledging the historically significant nature of the moment in which we are operating and staying focused on figuring out how to address the challenges that come with such a transformational industry change.
Kami Quinn is a partner and chair of the executive committee at Gilbert LLP.
Adam Farra is an associate at the firm.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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Gilbert LLP is a Washington-based law firm specializing in litigation and strategic risk management, insurance recovery and complex dispute resolution.