Law firm associates have bounced back after the economic uncertainty around Covid-19 almost shut down the legal industry in early 2020—and they have more leverage than ever before.
The uncertainty around the economy has pretty much dissipated, as have concerns about delivering superior work product from home. Some lawyers even feel their productivity is higher because they no longer have to commute.
There were some setbacks to working from home initially (particularly for families with limited child care options), but, as things have settled, most lawyers have found significant advantages to working from home, especially with client demand at an all-time high.
With client activity so high, the search for well-trained talent has led firm management to create unprecedented incentives to attract and retain talent. As a result, we have seen increases in associate compensation, and sign-on bonuses and the matching of special bonuses have almost become de rigueur for associates contemplating lateral moves.
As a co-author of Major Lindsey & Africa’s Millennial Survey (most recently conducted in June), we’ve consistently seen compensation be a top factor when associates are evaluating new employers. However, we’ve also seen work-life balance becoming a critical factor as well. Many lawyers have understood that work-life balance might be hard to achieve, so this is now playing out in another incentive law firms are advertising: the ability to work remotely.
Remote Work as a Perk
Before the pandemic, remote working was rarely discussed during the interview process. It wasn’t until associates had an offer in hand that they’d evaluate the “face time requirements” of any firm they were considering. For some of those associates, face time requirements were the deciding factor in choosing their next employer.
For most associates I speak to, having a flexible work arrangement is extremely important. For some, their firm’s impending return-to-office policy is motivating them to make a move.
As MLA’s previous survey results show, associates have felt they could deliver superior work product, whether it’s from home or the office, throughout the years. Generally, remote working was something people only did occasionally, and one could expect associates to be in the office for most of the week.
Things have changed significantly, however, and most mid- and senior-level associates are well-trained and can work independently. This, combined with unprecedented demand for those trained associates, fuels a thriving lateral market for associates who want to work remotely.
Apprenticeship and Remote Work
As Morgan Stanley’s CLO, Eric Grossman, astutely stated, the legal industry’s apprenticeship model has been essential to the training of young lawyers, and “individual lawyers learn and perform best, and collectively deliver the best results, when they are together.”
Grossman’s letter explained his preference that lawyers be present, in person, for all meetings. With so many senior attorneys comfortable working from home, this sent shock waves through the industry.
Currently, associates can bill more than ever; cutting out a two-way commute to the office makes a sizable impact on 70-hour work weeks. I get calls daily about associates fearful of burnout, and, naturally, they will meet any policies impeding their ability to work hard with criticism.
Nevertheless, much of Grossman’s letter does resonate. Anecdotally, I have heard from countless partners, and senior associates that the skill sets junior associates have developed during the pandemic are not on par with their experience during those junior years.
Our latest survey results back up this claim, with many senior associates feeling that working from home has diminished the quality of work product. Sitting down with a partner or senior associate that has marked up a document or being able to “swing by” when you have a quick question not only engenders the collaborative nature of the legal practice, but also creates a feeling of community at one’s firm.
Many lawyers are social, and the inspiration one receives from the brilliant minds that surround them is hard to recreate when one is exclusively working from home.
Impact of Ongoing Pandemic Uncertainty
Still, with variants of the virus on the rise and uncertainty as to when the client demand will die down, associates do have leverage and can “move with their feet” to find a flexible working arrangement, if they so choose. As firms continue to navigate the return-to-office process and how that will impact associate morale, they must prioritize finding and providing a reasonable solution for senior associates.
The value of being in the office is apparent for junior associates and partners, but mid-level and senior associates (coincidentally the same vintage that tend to have young families) should be given the free reign to create a work environment that makes the best sense for them to deliver on their client demands.
Firms that do so will be placing themselves in the most competitive position to win the talent for whom they have the direst current need. However, mid- and senior associates should understand the value of being in the office for training and advancement purposes and this sentiment should be conveyed in any firm’s remote working policy.
At the end of the day, I do have faith that management and associates will be able to meet in the middle to deliver the best work product for their clients.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Ru Bhatt is a partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa in New York who works closely with lawyers at all stages of their careers to help them achieve their goals. He focuses his practice on diverse and minority attorneys and prides himself on acting as long-term career counselor from the associate level to the partner and in-house levels.