The Challenges of Working Remotely
While many attorneys experienced positive changes from the remote work environment, many timekeepers also reported a variety of challenges.
One recurrent theme: the difficulty of setting boundaries between office and home life. For example, one attorney noted that having the discipline to stick to a daily work schedule was a challenge at home but that having that schedule was necessary to avoid working late into the evening. Another attorney noted that she struggled to stop working each day—feeling the need to constantly be “on” at nights and on weekends so that people saw that she was working.
Productivity was also a challenge. One attorney noted that she thought she was less productive at home, stating that it was hard to “get in the zone and stay in the zone.” Attorneys pointed out that working at home came with distractions, including barking dogs, screaming kids, inadequate home offices, and the omnipresent need to do household tasks.
Many attorneys noted that they missed interacting with their colleagues in person and felt isolated due to remote working. Many attorneys in private practice noted the value of being able to walk down the hall and bounce an idea off of a colleague in person; they stated that replacing these conversations with scheduled calls was difficult and not the same. One in-house counsel noted that she felt “out of the loop” working remotely; she noticed that she was missing out on in-person conversations that were taking place between her CEO and general counsel, who had returned to the office—conversations in which she otherwise would have been included if she had been there. Attorneys also missed the social aspect of being in the office.
Several attorneys voiced opinions about the increased use of videoconferences during remote work. One in-house attorney thought that there were benefits and drawbacks to increased videoconferencing. On the positive side, videoconferencing encouraged one person speaking at a time and neutralized the sidebars that often occur during in-person meetings. However, she also pointed out that videoconferencing lacked interpersonal connection and gave participants “permission” to be more passive than they might be in person. This sentiment was echoed by another attorney, who noted that aspects of human response are lost in Zoom calls and remote depositions. Another in-house attorney described Zoom as a “double-edged sword.” However, she also noted that her organization had instituted informal measures to avoid Zoom burnout by encouraging several “No Zoom” days a week—on those days, employees were not expected to turn on their cameras for meetings.
Remote Work and Work-Life Balance
Opinions were split as to whether work-life balance was helped or hindered by remote work during the pandemic. Some attorneys felt that, overall, the remote work environment was a good thing for work-life balance due to the flexibility and time savings identified above. These attorneys pointed to the following specific benefits, among others: an increased ability to be both a high-performing employee and a present and involved parent; an enriched, flexible lifestyle with more time to spend with family; and better self-care and mental health.
A minority of attorneys noted that they found no real change or impact in their work-life balance while working at home.
The remainder of attorneys felt that working at home completely blurred the lines between work and home life. These attorneys noted that they had difficulty disconnecting, such that work bled into home life, leading to higher stress and burnout. Some of these same attorneys reportedly chose to return to the office months ago in an effort to reestablish a boundary between home and work.
Concerns about Returning to the Office
Some attorneys with whom we spoke did not have any concerns with returning to the office and were looking forward to it. These attorneys felt comfortable with the measures put in place by their organizations to address any health and safety risks. Other attorneys expressed indifference about returning to in-person work because their organizations have already indicated that they will not be required to return full-time.
However, there were several attorneys who identified COVID-19 exposure as their primary concern with returning to the office. These attorneys worried about transmitting COVID-19 to spouses with work-from-home flexibility and to children too young to be vaccinated (under age five).
Other attorneys were concerned about how a return to the office would impact caregivers, especially women, single parents, and others who do not have as much flexibility at home. Additionally, some attorneys voiced concern about returning to “normal” prepandemic activities and behaviors, such as (perhaps unnecessary) in-person meetings, commuting, being places on time, and looking presentable.
Finally, one attorney was concerned about potential inequities that might ensue from a hybrid return-to-work model. He expressed concern that those choosing to work in the office would be provided with better opportunities than those electing to work predominantly remotely due to the informal social interactions and comradery among and between coworkers in an in-person office setting. He also pointed out that in his experience, partners (particularly senior partners) overwhelmingly favor the in-office environment, such that work allocations could lean toward in-office attorneys.
In terms of elements that attorneys would like to see carried forward from the pandemic-driven remote-work environment, we heard a common refrain: flexibility. Across the board, attorneys want the ability to work at home (or elsewhere) on demand, without being penalized. Attorneys noted that the pandemic has proven that they have the ability to work from home and that, as a result, employers should not arbitrarily require people to work in-person going forward. Several attorneys also noted that they would like to see more casual dress codes kept in place when returning to work.
Finally, a few attorneys noted that they believed working remotely gave them, employers, clients, and colleagues a greater recognition that home and family life were important and should be valued. These attorneys hoped that this new understanding would infuse their working relationships going forward.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has wrought many changes in the practice of law over these last 20 months. While individual circumstances varied, younger attorneys reported, in general, that some changes have been positive (e.g., increased flexibility, increased personal time, and the now-proven ability to work remotely), while others have proven problematic (e.g., blurring of work-life boundaries, social isolation, increased burnout, and home-based distractions). We recognize that attorneys are notoriously opinionated and that there is no one-size-fits-all model for employers to follow as we transition into a post-COVID-19 world; however, if our survey has shown anything, it’s that legal employers would be wise to avoid implementing heavy-handed policy changes that force people to return fully to a prepandemic lifestyle or that remove timekeepers’ ability to employ flexible strategies for performing their duties. Young attorneys now expect and demand flexibility to determine their preferred work environment. And with the legal talent war continuing to rage throughout various markets, lifestyle considerations may very well hold the key to attracting and retaining talent in 2022 and beyond.