The latest development in the ongoing saga to convince workers to return to the office full-time is sadly predictable. Some law firms are becoming more vocal in suggesting that those who don’t return to the office will be laid off in the next economic downturn.
A recent article published by JD Supra is indicative; it’s entitled “Law Firms Want Lawyers Back in the Office-Part 2”. The article is part of a series, “Confessions of a Legal Recruiter and includes the hyperbolic sub-header: “Is Remote Work Dead?”
The short answer is: No. Remote work is not dead. Far from it.
In fact, as reported in a paywalled article on law.com, 55% of staff recently polled indicated that they “would look for a new job if required to work more than three days [per week] in the office.” See: Law Firm Staff Are Flouting Office Returns—And Will Leave for More Remote Work | The Legal Intelligencer But most staff don’t generate enough revenues to truly impact law firm decision makers. Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising if some law firms ignored the stated preferences of their staff.
But the preferences of mid-level associates are much harder to ignore.
Increasingly, law firm partners can’t meet their business development goals if they must do too much of the day-to-day legal work. For transactional attorneys, they need associates who can document deals without constant supervision and wholesale revision of their work. And the problem is often even more acute for litigation partners, who need mid-level associates to draft motions and get cases through the discovery process.
The JD Supra quotes a recruiter who explicitly connects keeping your job with coming to the office:
During the downturn lawyers are well advised to make a point of showing up at the office. While remote work may become the new normal down the road, it behooves most to ensure that they are not let go during this recession.
This is at worst scare tactics, and at a minimum a gross oversimplification. Even in a deep recession, relatively few lawyers lose their jobs. Moreover, lawyers who are laid off generally rejoin the workforce quickly and whether they get laid off is correlated to what practice areas they are in. To be sure, an economic slowdown may disproportionately impact M&A and other corporate lawyers, but that won’t happen uniformly. Some industries, such as healthcare, are likely to continue to grow, and the demand for healthcare transactional lawyers will reflect that.
To be sure, lawyers who have strong ties to key decision makers are less likely to be laid off. But that hardly means that showing up in the office is the primary issue. If you are a new lawyer at your firm and largely unknown to key partners, it is wise to know them better. If you do get the opportunity to work with them, showing that you do good work is more important than being physically in the office.
Critically, this is a two-way street. The fact that some aspects of the economy are likely to shrink does not change the fact that law firms are profitable in part because they can leverage the work of their associates. If you are a managing partner or other influencer at your firm, please do not fall into the trap of believing that the current economic conditions give you carte blanche to force lawyers to come back to the office. If you do that, you are likely to drive away lawyers to other firms. And if we are going to indulge in worst-case scenarios and scare tactics, consider the possibility that requiring lawyers to return to the office on a full-time basis will cause all your most valued associates to find greener pastures, leaving you will nothing but the associates who keep you awake at night every time they are assigned to one of your matters.
Fear mongering isn’t that hard. What we really need now is wise and strategic law firm leadership.