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November/December 2020

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Working From Home Works: Law Firms Must Adapt

Daniel J. Siegel

“If you’re not here, I’m not here.” I muttered that phrase under my breath for what seems like thousands of times during my two decades of working at law firms as my bosses repeatedly believed that the only time I was working was when they too were in the office.

As a “morning person,” I wake up around 4:30 a.m., a time most people consider crazy. I exercise and then go to work, arriving by 7:00 a.m. and working until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. at the latest. My bosses, however, tended to arrive around 9:00 a.m., or even later, and stayed until early evening. As a result, I left the office before they did. They always made it clear by their words and/or body language, however, that I wasn’t working “enough.” That I always completed my assignments on time, that my brain was a french fry by 5:00 p.m., and that I worked more efficiently and produced my best work product early in the morning when phones didn’t ring and bosses didn’t stop by to chat was irrelevant. Because my circadian rhythms did not match theirs, I was not working enough.

Each time they commented or made a face, I would mutter to myself, “If you’re not here, I’m not here.” Bosses might assume that just because they’re not in the office, you’re not either, but “If you’re not here, I’m not here” is wrong.

It highlights why law firms should change as a result of the quarantine orders that forced thousands of firms throughout the country to close their physical doors and have their entire staff work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, many firms did not sufficiently appreciate those attorneys who needed accommodations, such as the ability to work remotely or on reduced or flexible schedules, creating a second-class group of attorneys, who are primarily female. Since the pandemic, those workers became the models for the in-office staff forced to figure out how to work from a kitchen table or with children screaming “Mommy” all around them.

Over the years, I met many lawyers who worked remotely and had to adjust their “work schedules” not because they arose with the roosters, but because of their need to juggle their work lives with other commitments such as child care—the “thing” commonly known as their “personal lives.” Many conceded that they had to perform “familial gymnastics” to hide their problems from the powers-that-be who would determine their futures in their firms.

What I also saw was that the overwhelming majority of the firms they worked for did not appreciate these lawyers, whose loyalty remained despite the obstacles they faced. Then came COVID-19, and everyone had some of the same problems. A 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule is far more challenging when you need to deal with Zoom classes for toddlers and many other adjustments. Consequently, firms had to adapt and allow staff to modify their schedules and their working hours to accommodate those problems.

Suddenly homebound, all these people had to take on the role of quasi-teacher, babysitter, day care worker and more. They may also have had to care for aging relatives or family members infected with the coronavirus.

No one could hide it. It meant that work schedules had to become more flexible. After all, if a kindergartner’s Zoom classes were at 1:00 p.m., and one parent was scheduled to give a presentation to her CEO at that time, the other parent’s work schedule had to wait until kindergarten class was over.

Not only was everyone at almost every firm working from home, but so was everyone else, including their spouses, their kids’ teachers and everyone else with school-age children. They were also parenting from home, and teaching from home, while learning fifth-grade math and tenth-grade social studies. Plus, their quarantined kids couldn’t be with friends and were antsy. They did not care if they interrupted Daddy’s Zoom videoconference with the judge to whine about how bored they were. They just banged on the door or simply came into the room.

This daily juggling act was impossible to hide. Rather, it became what some call the “new normal,” the challenging balance that spawned social media jokes like the “my co-worker” meme in which you describe your children’s behavior as if they were your co-workers.

As child care and other issues became daily interruptions, firms were forced to recognize that their staff had private lives. As firms now adopt a more remote workforce, the tables have turned. To thrive, firm leaders will need to recognize that their existing remote staff was highly productive because they learned to be efficient schedule jugglers years ago. They learned to survive.

Now it is the firms’ turn to learn that they must accommodate and appreciate their remote employees in ways they never have. Such a revelation will benefit women attorneys to a greater, and long overdue, extent.

What was often lost on firms, however, was that lawyers who work remotely or on reduced hours have traditionally been more adept at juggling schedules and maximizing their efficiency. They also knew how to use technology and didn’t have to learn what GoToMyPC was or how to use basic software. They used it or they could not have worked competently remotely.

Of course, these time management and technology skills were critical for people working at home during the pandemic, when women assumed more responsibility than men. According to “Nearly Half of Men Say They Do Most of the Home Schooling. 3 Percent of Women Agree,” an April 2020 New York Times survey, “70 percent of women say they’re fully or mostly responsible for housework during lockdown, and 66 percent say so for child care—roughly the same shares as in typical times.”

This is not new information. In 2009, The Project for Attorney Retention issued a report, “Reduced Hours, Full Success: Part-Time Partners in U.S. Law Firms,” which concluded that “part-time arrangements have long been viewed as bullets to the heart of lawyers’ careers—and dubious propositions for law firms’ bottom lines.” The report attempted to challenge that view and provide examples of how firms can create successful flexible, reduced hours and programs. But little changed since 2009, highlighting the limited success of such arrangements. Moreover, the technology that has proven so valuable during the current pandemic did not exist a decade ago to the extent it does now, making the transition easier than ever.

More recently, a 2015 article in The Atlantic, “Making One of the Most Brutal Jobs a Little Less Brutal,” explained that “Large, corporate firms have tried implementing part-time schedules in order to relieve some of their overwhelmed employees, but to no avail.” The article cited a report, “New Models of Legal Practice,” by the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, which discussed the “flexibility stigma” and refers to the “negative competency assumptions” that are associated with people working reduced hours. The UC report also highlights the issue of “schedule creep,” when a part-time job slowly warps into a full-time one with no increase in pay.

In the 2009 Part-Time Lawyers Report by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), 5.9 percent of lawyers worked part time and most of them, about 73 percent, were women. NALP noted that these statistics reflect the fact that women are much more likely to be working part time than men. NALP also reported that, “Among women lawyers overall, 13% work part-time; among female partners, 12.1% are working part-time; and among women associates the figure was 9.8%. This contrasts with a rate of just 2.4 percent among all male lawyers.” This is consistent with a 2017 study by the National Association for Women Lawyers (“The Promotion and Retention of Women in Law Firms”), which found that only 19 percent of all equity partners are women.

The lessons of the pandemic reveal more starkly the inequity of how part-time lawyers’ career trajectories have been suppressed. That needs to change. Why? Because the value of part-time, remotely based lawyers, including those who will almost certainly join those ranks, will be of greater import long after the pandemic becomes a part of history.

Despite past efforts to change how law firms evaluate and hire attorneys who desire the flexibility of remote access and/or the need for flexible or reduced hours, law firm life has not changed appreciably in recent years. Firms continued to expect, and in many cases demand, that staff work eight, nine, 10 or more hours every day, primarily during traditional business hours when the bosses, that is the partners/powers-that-be, are present. Firms frown upon, or in some cases prohibit, attorneys and staff from working flexible hours or less than a full-time schedule. They also discourage or prohibit staff from working remotely, often making excuses such as (1) you cannot be as productive working from home, (2) if you cannot work full time, you cannot handle a full caseload and the demands of clients and courts, and (3) it is not technologically feasible to work remotely.

With the advent of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, law firms had to begin remote operations, with remarkable success. The results affirm that lawyers can work remotely and that those with baseline technology skills can handle the transition more smoothly than their Luddite counterparts. In one report by Gensler (“For Law Firms, COVID-19 Has Accelerated the Inevitable”), an architectural firm analyzing likely reductions in the size of physical offices, an Am Law 100 chief administrative officer describes the change “as a giant Band-Aid rip [that] just accelerated the inevitable.”

The quarantines of COVID-19 have destroyed the validity of the justifications offered for why everyone in a firm must work full time in a brick-and-mortar office, particularly during “traditional” business hours. Report after report emphasizes that assignments were completed and that lawyers did not show a decrease in productivity. The success of remote work, and the increased willingness of courts to conduct hearings remotely, changes the dynamic of law firm life and highlights the value of attorneys who can adapt, are comfortable with the technology needed to work remotely, and can produce high-quality work product, regardless of where and when it is created.

Lawyers accustomed to working remotely did not have to adapt to new technology during the pandemic. To them, remote access, videoconferencing and other indicia of the quarantine were just another day at work. According to “Work-At-Home After Covid-19—Our Forecast,” put out by Global Workplace Analytics, a consulting firm that helps employers understand and prepare for the future of work, an estimated 56 percent of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible or partially compatible with remote work. The company predicts “that the longer people are required to work at home, the greater the adoption we will see when the [pandemic] dust settles.”

In sum, the pandemic has taught law firms many lessons, including:

  • Lawyers and staff have personal lives, which they have silently and successfully juggled, seemingly forever.
  • Child care is virtually nonexistent. The majority of summer programs and camps for kids have been canceled this year and perhaps far longer, meaning that the need to juggle children and child care will not end anytime soon.
  • Schools of all types are revising their programs to balance social distancing requirements with other health-focused concerns, while also debating whether to provide both on-site or at-home classes, or some combination.
  • Lawyers and staff will continue to have to balance these and other demands with the need to do their jobs.
  • Law firms will need to allow lawyers and staff greater flexibility as to when they will accomplish their work.
  • Firms that remain rigid in the demand that staff work traditional hours will discover that many lawyers and staff will leave because the traditional on-site law firm model is no longer viable for them.
  • Lawyers who have avoided discussing their personal lives with firm management will now be able to confront their firms and demand the flexibility often considered a deathknell to the likelihood of becoming a partner.
  • Law firms will no longer be able to demand that staff always be in the office, because the pandemic has proven that firms can accomplish much, if not all, of their work remotely.
  • The excuse that workers who work remotely are less productive has been disproved.
  • The excuse that technology is not adequate to permit remote work on a continual basis has been disproved.

COVID-19 has changed everything. As the legal world adapts to a more remote workforce, firm leaders will have to respond to and accommodate the needs and demands of their remote staff, rather than impose work schedules that ignore their staffs’ private lives. This is also an opportunity to revise their old partnership standards and welcome into their partnership the women and other attorneys who have been denied entry despite their productivity. Otherwise, those valuable employees will seek positions at firms that recognize that even if you’re not here when they are, your productivity and loyalty remain. 

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