While law firms are pushing for more in-person work this fall, return-to-office policies can create — and in some cases, are already causing — turbulence in legal workplaces.
About 44% of lawyers with 10 years or less of practice said they’d leave their current job for greater remote work opportunities, according to a report published by the American Bar Association on Wednesday.
The ABA report is one of two new reports this week highlighting the resistance law firms could face, from both lawyers and staff, in mandating in-office work, echoing the backlash some corporations are already facing in calling workers back to the office.
The ABA data, culled from the responses of nearly 2,000 bar association members, found that the younger the lawyer, the more likely they were to say they’d leave their job for another that offered more remote work opportunities. Those younger lawyers also tend to be more diverse, the analysts noted.
Law firm leaders are asking lawyers to work in the office “at their peril because there’s clearly a preference to be able to have some flexible-type work arrangements,” said Bobbi Liebenberg, a senior partner at the Fine, Kaplan and Black law firm and principal at The Red Bee Group consulting firm who co-authored the ABA report. ”What you can really take from this survey, for certain segments of lawyers, remote work is really important.”
Additionally, an “overwhelming” majority of lawyers across sectors and age groups believe remote work has had no adverse impact on their quality of work, the report stated. About 90% of respondents said they believed remote work did not affect the quality of work, and even improved it.
Meanwhile, a separate survey found nearly half of law firm support staff in North America and more than a third in the U.K. whose firms mandate a certain number of days in the office do not comply with those policies.
That report, from legal tech company BigHand, found that almost half of North American respondents (49%) and more than a third of U.K. respondents (35%) were “actively ignoring” in-office mandates, describing the situation as a “stand-off” between firms and employees in their hybrid work expectations.
“This report confirms the problem is far from limited to lawyers and that hybrid working for support staff also needs to be urgently addressed,” stated the report, which analyzed 836 responses across senior operations, HR, support staff management and practice group leader roles from firms of 50 or more lawyers in North America and the U.K.
The issue has gained new traction in the legal world as demand has dipped this year, arguably giving firms more leverage to try and enforce office returns and as corporate clients themselves have renewed calls for employees to come back to the office. Google, General Motors and Comcast are just a few of the big corporations that have tried to mandate some form of in-office attendance and have been met with employee resistance over the last few months.
To be sure, most lawyers also told the ABA surveyors they would be willing to go to the office if specifically asked by their superiors. About 75% of respondents said they would be willing to “work in the office any time” if asked by their employer, with 81% of men responding in the affirmative and 68% of women agreeing with the premise.
Additionally, more experienced lawyers surveyed by the bar association showed less willingness to leave jobs on account of remote work: only 13% of lawyers with 41 or more years of experience said they’d be willing to leave their current job for one with more remote work opportunities. For lawyers with 11 to 20 years of experience, the percentage was 35%; for lawyers with 21 to 30 years of experience, the percentage was 30%; and for 31 to 40 years of experience, it was 19%.
Stephanie Scharf, a partner at Scharf Banks Marmor as well as a principal at The Red Bee Group, said in an interview the data on remote preferences is “very strongly generational.”
“We now have a lot of lawyers who are under the age of 40, and if you’re under the age of 40, you pretty much grew up online,” she said. “For a lot of your life, you’re used to communities, teams, relationships that are not there sitting in front of you in an office. That translates to how people are comfortable working.”
An overwhelming majority — 87% of respondents, ranging from private law firm lawyers to corporate counsel and those in government — said their employers still allow them to work remotely.
But 53% of lawyers also said they think it’s “unlikely” they will continue working remotely into 2023. The survey didn’t specify whether that’s because they feel their employers will try to bring them back or because they’ll decide to go back into offices themselves, the analysts said this week.
A separate finding showed that law firm managing partners and chief legal officers were more likely than other lawyers to say it was “very” or “extremely” important for employers to provide designated in-office days for in-person meetings and training. About 31% of firm leaders indicated that was important versus only 23% of other lawyers — the largest gap between the two groups amongst the factors surveyed.
Other factors the researchers asked about included wellness and mental health resources (22% of law firm leaders viewed it as important to provide versus 27% of other lawyers) and increased compensation (40% versus 46%), among others.