As Law Firms Plan Office Returns, Whole ‘Remote Weeks’ May Become Newest Benefit

Posted July 15th, 2021.

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Floating remote weeks could become a permanent hold-over and perk from the pandemic era, especially if firms don’t keep the two- or three-day office week forever.

By Andrew Maloney

What You Need to Know

  • Some firms have announced remote work weeks as part of their office-return policies.
  • The benefits could be a long-term holdover from the pandemic era.
  • Firm policies are still in trial phases, but flexibility could remain into 2022 and beyond.

The new normal at law firms could include a new benefit for lawyers in 2022 and beyond: whole weeks or consecutive days of remote work.

Some firms are proposing an allotment of consecutive remote-working days beyond this year as a type of employee perk.

For instance, Davis Polk & Wardwell said the firm will give attorneys one remote week of their choosing this year after they return to the office in September. And the firm may move to a model of additional floating remote weeks in 2022, after this year’s trial period, according to a firm memo. Outside the Am Law 200, plaintiffs employment boutique Sanford Heisler Sharp said late last month it will allow two weeks of remote work time each year, with the time approved in advance by managing partners.

Law firm analysts say these floating remote weeks have the potential to be a permanent hold-over and perk from the pandemic era, especially if firms don’t keep the two- or three-day office week forever. And other law firms may catch on to the benefit.

Davis Polk’s office policy especially “is relevant and will be noticed and will get other top firms to consider doing like things,” said Michelle Fivel, a recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa. She said associates in particular can appreciate the vote of confidence on their ability to work from wherever they want and still be productive.

But it’s not like offering extra vacation, or reducing billing-hour requirements, she said. And often, even with time off, Big Law lawyers still feel like they can’t take a break from work, Fivel added. The floating remote week idea is interesting and creative, she said, “but I don’t think it’s going to resonate as much as globally having a flexible policy.”

Both Davis Polk and Sanford said their return plans aren’t permanent yet.
Going further, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher announced Wednesday that lawyers are free to work remotely “whenever it is appropriate.” The plan appears to be for the indefinite future, but also with the caveat that “we will continually evaluate these policies as circumstances evolve,” according to a firm memo.

While a lot of plans are just in trial phases for now, Tim Corcoran, a law firm consultant who specializes in compensation issues, said he expects many firms to maintain some level of flexibility in 2022 and beyond because it could be an effective recruiting tool.

“It’s not just altruism. It’s economics,” he said.

Law firms also tend to copy each other. “To the extent that law firm leaders start to recognize that part of the competitive offering, from associates to partners, and associates to business professionals, is the remote working policy, they’re going to embed somewhere in their policy some sustainable flexibility,” Corcoran said.

Law firms’ office return plans will continue evolving because individual partners and employees feel like they can help mold them, said Jeffrey Lowe, global practice leader of the law firm practice at Major, Lindsey & Africa. Indeed, Paul Hastings felt enough pressure about its initial statement that it reemphasized its commitment to flexible work arrangements in a subsequent memo in late June.

David Sanford, chairman of Sanford Heisler, acknowledged in an interview that the firm’s allocation of remote weeks had input from firm personnel. “We heard some feedback from people who asked that question, whether that would be allowed, and we gave it consideration,” he said. ”And again, because people have done so well during the last 15 months during the pandemic, we thought it would be a nice thing to offer, especially given people seem to want that option.”

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