Back to the Office: What Law Firm Leaders Need to Know

As the pandemic starts to recede, everyone is wondering what’s next. What will the office look like post-pandemic? Will legal employers continue to permit employees to work remotely? Will the nature of work change? Will more collaboration and communication amongst legal teams occur online?

While there’s no way to predict the future, surveys seeking the input of legal professionals can help provide an indication of what to expect in the weeks and months to come when offices begin to fully re-open and the return to work in the “new normal” commences. For example, one recent survey focused on the return to work in the legal profession and offers lots of interesting insight into what lawyers envision will happen upon their return to work when the pandemic ends. The survey, “Lawyers Perspectives on Returning to the Office,” was conducted by Law360 and Pulse and Major, Lindsey and Africa. More than 2,500 attorneys responded to it and the results provide lots of insight into how different segments of the legal professional population view the return to in-office work.

Not surprisingly, the survey results showed that there was a wide diversity of preferences regarding the when and how of returning to the office on a full-time basis. Generally speaking, the older the respondents were, the more eager they were to return to in-office work full-time.

The lawyers most eager to return to office work were Baby Boomers (51%) and members of the Silent Generation (57%). Younger lawyers were less excited about in-office work, with only 22% of Millennials and 40% of Generation X attorneys indicating that they were “eager” to return to regularly working in an office.

The return to full-time hours in-office was also more popular with older attorneys, with 30% of Baby Boomers preferring that option. In comparison, only 21% of Generation X attorneys and 10% of Millennial lawyers shared their interest in returning to work in an office 5 days per week. Instead, the younger attorneys indicated that a hybrid work schedule was preferred with a mix of both in-office work and remote work. 48% of the Generation X lawyers and 49% of Millennials chose this option compared to only 41% of the Baby Boomers.

Given the disparity in the responses between younger and older legal professionals, it should come as no surprise to learn that law firm partners tended to be more interested in returning to the office full-time than either associates or of counsel attorneys. This makes sense since partners are more seasoned attorneys and thus tend to be older. Accordingly, 27% of partners preferred the return to work on a full-time basis compared to 16% of counsel and 7% of associates.

A part-time return to in-office work held appeal to the greatest number of attorneys overall, however. The survey results showed that 47% of both partners and associates preferred this option, as did 41% of counsel.

When it comes to the timing of the return to the office, opinions varied quite a bit as to when it would be preferable to start in-office work. A minority of attorneys (21%) reported that they would like to return “as soon as possible.” The rest were more cautious, although the circumstances under which they envisioned transitioning back to the office varied greatly. Half of the respondents indicated that would only feel comfortable returning to the office upon being fully vaccinated. Another 20% sought to return only after herd immunity was declared by the government. Another 16% wanted to return only after mandated to by their firm, and 17% chose “other” in response to this query. Finally 4% of those surveyed shared that they did not want to return to the office under any circumstances.

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According to the respondents, there are good reasons for returning to the office at least a few days each week. After all, we all know that while remote work does have its benefits, it also has drawbacks. And it was the negative aspects of working remotely full-time that were the impetus behind the desire to work in the office. Respondents shared that remote work had a detrimental impact on the following aspects of their work lives: 1) Mentorship (57%), 2) Training (52%), 3) Work/life separation (60%), and 4) Mental well-being/burnout (52%).

For law firm leaders seeking a return of their workforces to the office take heed of the results of this survey. Not all lawyers in your firm are going to be on board with the immediate return to in-office work on a full-time basis. In order to retain talent and ensure the continued success of your firm in the months following the pandemic, it’s important to ensure that you understand and address the valid concerns and preferences of your firm’s attorneys. The more comfortable that they are with the circumstances and schedule of their return to the office, the better off the firm will be in the long run.

The bottom line: it’s important to acknowledge that the effects of the pandemic will undoubtedly be long-lasting. Whether it’s continued remote work, hybrid work schedules, virtual court hearings, or the increased use of online collaboration tools, the impact of COVID-19 will be with us for years to come. But don’t take my word for it – for even more insight on the the practice of law has changed due to the pandemic, download this FREE guide: “Adapt or Fail: Industry Changes Law Firms Can’t Afford to Ignore.”