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May 11, 2022 What's New at TIPS

Developing a Remote Working Policy that Works for You

By Candace Chuck, Christine Forsythe, Loren Podwill, and Richard Williamson

Though remote working has been around for a long time, its prevalence and acceptability certainly increased because of the pandemic. Going forward, however, each firm will need to decide whether remote working is going to be a permanent feature for its lawyers and staff. Here are some important factors lawyers and firms may want to consider in developing a remote working policy that fits their practices.

  1. What do the lawyers want? Law firms need lawyers. Therefore, a critical factor for any firm to consider is whether its remote working policy is a good fit for the lawyers it has and the lawyers it wants to recruit. The pandemic has forced everyone to reevaluate where and how they want to work. For some, the comfort and flexibility of remote working has been liberating. Those lawyers may be reluctant to give up that freedom and go back to the office on a regular basis. For others, however, working from home is stifling and distracting. They may crave the personal interaction and energy that comes with working in a busy office. A set policy may attract one type of person while alienating another. Thus, before establishing any policy, it may be wise to communicate with existing lawyers and even prospective employees to determine whether they have a strong preference for working remotely versus working in-person. In addition, soliciting and implementing input from other members of your team may help them to feel invested in the ultimate decision.
  2. What do the clients need and expect? Working from a lanai on the beach or a cabin in the woods may be an idyllic setting, but if it does not work for your clients, it will be a short-lived experience. If your clients have always been in different places, then remote working may save you and them time and money on travel. By contrast, if your clients are accustomed to regular, in-person meetings, they may be unhappy with being forced to communicate by phone or through a virtual platform. What you do for that client matters too. Exchanging drafts of documents electronically can be quick and efficient. But it may be better to huddle over a set of detailed construction plans with your client rather than trying to zoom and scroll on a computer screen. Likewise, examining physical evidence or participating in a site inspection will probably require you to leave the house. So, both what the client prefers and what the case demands may dictate the extent to which remote working is a feasible option for you and your practice.
  3. What about the staff? Unless the entire firm is completely remote, someone will need to attend and maintain the firm’s physical space. In addition, tasks like receiving mail, handling oversized or voluminous documents, preparing any hard copies of motions and appellate briefs, storing paper files and physical evidence, and maintaining infrastructure generally require someone to be in-person. Obviously, not everyone in a firm has the same role and responsibilities. Yet, requiring some members of your team to be physically present while allowing others to pick-and-choose when to appear can cause resentment and undermine firm morale. That may be unavoidable to some extent, but any remote working policy should evaluate the needs of your entire team and try to treat everyone fairly (even if not identically).
  4. What is the best arrangement for the firm as a whole? Any work environment should not be an end in itself, but a means for lawyers to effectively serve their clients. Remote working may either foster or frustrate a productive work environment. For instance, sparing lawyers from long commutes may allow them more time to perform their work, while also affording additional personal time. At the same time, it is often easier to delegate work assignments and mentor new lawyers when partners and associates are in the office together. Moreover, in developing a remote working policy, you should consider how it may impact both short-term hiring and long-term retention. Flexibility with work preferences may be a great way to attract plenty of talent. If there is no cohesion within the firm, however, those new hires may leave just as easily as they came. Accordingly, before finalizing any policy, you should carefully assess whether it is really sustainable for your practice.

Lastly, it is important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Client expectations, individual staff needs, the character of each firm’s work, local norms, and office availability all weigh on whether remote working is a viable option. Nonetheless, these factors should help any firm assess and develop a long-term policy that hopefully lets you and your firm maximize the benefits of both remote and in-person work.

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Candace Chuck

Associate

Candace Chuck is an associate with Preg O’Donnell & Gillett in Seattle, Washington.

Christine Forsythe

Founder

Christine Forsythe is the founding member of The Forsythe Law Firm, LLC in Atlanta, Georgia.

Loren Podwill

Managing Partner

Loren Podwill is the managing partner with Bullivant Houser Bailey, PC in Portland, Oregon.

Richard Williamson

Partner

Richard Williamson is a partner with Robertson, Johnson, Miller & Williamson in Reno, Nevada.