Will Law Firms Ratchet Up Pressure on Attorneys to Be Back in the Office in 2022?

Posted November 2nd, 2021.

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While firms have been reluctant to mandate returns to the office, there are indications that concern for associate development and other factors may have firms pushing a little harder for people to return to the office next year.

By Andrew Maloney

What You Need to Know

  • Some analysts believe law firms could become more adamant about office returns in 2022.
  • Data on office returns in the Am Law 200 show firms’ preference for in-person work increased over the course of 2021.
  • Office return requirements may be geared more at less-experienced lawyers than high-ranking partners.

Big Law’s preference for in-office work grew over the course of 2021. And barring another delta-style surge in COVID-19 cases, more firms are slated to implement some version of office returns in early 2022. Against that backdrop, might firms put more pressure on their people to come back when the calendar flips?

Some legal industry analysts say while firms are generally reluctant to force people back into the office at all right now, they could become more adamant about it next year, citing high vaccine uptake, concerns about cultural and development issues, and unforeseen challenges in having different people in and out of the office.

“Everybody is telling me, ‘Look, we’re back in the office. Forty percent, or 30%, are back, or whatever it is. But we’re not really putting pressure on anybody until next year,’” said Jim Jones, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Law Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession.

He added that most everyone accepts there’s going to be some type of hybrid work model in general, “but I don’t think anyone’s really going to be imposing those rules until 2022.” He also noted most big firms have vaccine mandates and pretty good vaccination rates.

More firms are also now erring on the side of office work, Bill Bice, CEO of legal tech firm nQ Zebraworks, told The Legal Intelligencer last month. According to data collected by the firm, about 27% of a cohort of 89 Am Law 200 firms initially announced return-to-office plans that called for one to two days of office work per week, the most common grouping.

About 18% used a model that called for three days of office work, while 7% scheduled four to five days.

Now, a plurality (26%) of firms in that cohort are calling for a three-day-per-week minimum of onsite work, while 17% are pushing for four or five days, and only 8% are planning on one or two days per week.
And although firms are going out of their way to make people’s time in the office more purposeful, and throwing in a variety of perks to make it more attractive than working from home, they are still concerned it’s not enough for younger lawyers.

“Firms are really worried about cultural issues. They’re worried about the fact they’ve got two associate classes that’ve never stepped foot in the building before, and they’re anxious to get back. So, I detect a kind of momentum toward coming out of this,” Jones said.

Indeed, high-ranking partners had a significant amount of autonomy even before the pandemic. It’s not like firms are going to go out of their way to tell them how they need to work now. And while firm leaders are concerned about integrating younger lawyers into the mix, many younger lawyers themselves also appear willing to return to the office.

Erica Bernstein, co-founder of the legal recruiting firm Erica Robert Associates, said associates and young attorneys are bearing the brunt of the negatives of remote work, because they’re not getting the experience and mentoring that “is so fundamental for attorney development.”

At the same time, firms are still generally reluctant to make bold declarations on the topic. She said the model she and partner Rob Delicate have heard the most is requiring or strongly recommending two to three days of in-office work per week, though there are “all sorts” of different policies.

“But the one consistent theme is compassion, and individualized consideration,” she said in an interview last week. “Firms more than anything are very reluctant to take a hard stance, and where they are putting down parameters, are still recognizing that they’re going to have to make a lot of accommodations.”

Added Delicate: “We are hearing of firms trying to get people back in the office at least a couple days a week for continuity purposes. But as we’ve seen, firms have not shied away from adjusting. It’s all about being nimble and flexible, and the way that impacts partners in a certain respect—I think it’s just less of an impact on their daily life than it is for associates.”

The high-profile plaintiffs firm Sanford Heisler Sharp has codified a preference for giving younger and less-experienced lawyers more in-office time. The firm this summer announced a policy in which lawyers with fewer than two years experience or less than one year with the firm would be expected to work in-person four days a week.

Lawyers with more than two years experience and at least a year of tenure with the firm would be expected in two to three days a week.

Sanford said in an interview this week that the firm has pushed off its return until January, and will come back on a staggered basis after that. But he’s been clear that the policy is subject to modification.

“Everything is an experiment at this point, right? We’re still in uncharted territory,” he said in an interview this week. He noted that, barring another COVID spike, it will be the first time in the office for a lot of his employees, whether they’re coming in from law school, clerkships or elsewhere.

“So the way I view it is it’s an ongoing experiment, and undoubtedly will be met with tweaks. But we’re confident it will work for the most part, and going forward. I’m hoping that it goes well, and I see no reason to think it won’t go well.”

Doug Clark, managing partner of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, said his firm is slated to do a firmwide return in February, though its offices are open now. He said they’re still crafting a policy that attempts to capture benefits of remote and in-person work, and haven’t laid down any days-per-week requirements.

“We haven’t given any conclusions as to whether two is better than three or three is better than four,” he said in an interview this week.

“The foundation of that plan is going to be flexibility, frankly, and we think that all law firms will have to be flexible in their approach to work in the future. There are benefits to this environment, and we want to identify and maintain them, while maintaining a strong firm culture and the cohesiveness that in-person work can foster, so it’s a real balancing act.”

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