For more than a year, lawyers and legal staff have largely worked from home thanks to the pandemic. But now, with the coronavirus crisis in the rearview mirror thanks to widespread vaccination protocols, law firms of all kinds have announced their reopening plans — some with hopes to return to the pre-COVID status quo of all office, all the time, and others more than willing to offer the remote flexibility that employees have become accustomed to during these unprecedented times.
Not everyone is terribly eager to return to the office, and we have it on pretty good authority that some attorneys are dreading it. But that got us wondering: how much money would it take for lawyers to put aside their dreams of remote flexibility? In the wake of the latest Biglaw pay hike, let us be the first to tell you the answer is not a 7.9% salary increase (i.e., the new $205K salary scale).
Are lawyers ready to return to their offices? What would be more preferable, more money or permanent work-from-home options?
We polled more than 600 attorneys and staff members across hundreds of Biglaw and boutique law firms from almost every state in America to find out what lies ahead for the legal workforce in the wake of the pandemic.
As it turns out, money — lots of it — talks, and it would make lawyers reluctantly leave their remote work capabilities behind. According to our survey, it would take a 30% increase to get over half of our respondents to choose to forgo the ability to work remotely. A combined 357 of the 600-plus who took our poll said a 10%, 20%, or 30% salary increase would be their choice over permanent remote flexibility.
Which is more appealing to you?
Which is more appealing to you?
Asked only of those who reported they would prefer permanent work from home flexibility over a 10% pay raise.
Which is more appealing to you?
Asked only of those who reported they would prefer permanent work from home flexibility over a 20% pay raise.
The harsh reality is that a 30% raise won’t be coming, and like it or not, we’ll all have to return to our offices at some point in the future. So, with that having been said, we got down to misery business with our next question (respondents were allowed to select all choices that applied).
What are you dreading most about a return to in-office work?
Commuting (76.80%), work/life balance (57.19%), and professional dress code (35.25%) were identified as the top three things respondents were dreading most about the return to in-office work.
On the other side of the coin, even if lawyers are being forced to return to the office, there are some bright spots for those who have more or less been confined to their homes for more than 15 months. Respondents were allowed to select all choices that applied for our next question.
What are you looking forward to most about a return to in-office work?
Seeing colleagues in-person (59.85%), office resources (43.63%), and being out of the house (39.96%) were identified as the top three things respondents were looking forward to the most about the return to in-office work.
When asked to share their general thoughts on office reentry, our survey respondents really spoke their minds and some common themes emerged. Here are some select responses that we thought would really resonate with others.
Permanent flexible remote work scheduling is desired by most respondents (but that shouldn’t mean that attorneys are available to work at all hours).
- “Why any firm wouldn’t offer flexible WFH policies after the last 15 months is totally beyond me and a sign of the refusal of many law firms to join the 21st Century.”
- “Although there’s a gap in workplace camaraderie, I think the quality of people’s work can now shine through in the remote environment, rather than allowing commonality or favoritism to dictate work assignment.”
- “During the pandemic, what little boundaries we had in Biglaw were dissolved. Now we get partners assigning work at 10 pm due that night and calls on weekends where we get chided for not responding within an hour on a weekend. If this 24/7 nature of the firm continues and we have to be in the office, I believe many mid-levels who are burnt out will leave. We need mandated vacation annually where we’re required to turn devices off. WIthout that, post pandemic work is going to be hell.”
There is a sense that only lawyers think a return to the office is necessary.
- “The fact that some dinosaur partners miss being at their desks and can’t handle the fact that not everybody wants that, or works like that, is shortsighted. Every associate who got a “return to status quo” is looking to move right now, and law students aren’t looking to lose their flexibility – this is what they’ve literally grown up in the law doing. What a terrible loss of resources and revenue that will be for these rigid firms.”
- “The individuals at my Am Law 100 firm pushing for full time in person office reopening are all older partners who have been skirting health care guidance the entire pandemic to go into the office because that is “just the way they work.” Some partners never adjusted to the “new normal” of working from home, so instead of letting us enjoy the flexibility it provides us and the cost-savings it would provide the firm, they want us to come back in person full time because they had to when they were associates. Not compelling.”
- “I regard returning to the office as retrograde, something we’ll look back at in 20 years as a quaint relic. Most of the people I know champing at the bit to go back say it’s important for “office culture” and other fundamentally immeasurable and unprovable qualities. It seems like it mostly a way for sad sack boomers with no lives outside of work to socialize despite the manifest idiocy of commuting just to do the exact same thing you were going to do at home. I will probably lateral to a firm with a better policy soon.”
Many believe that their productivity increased while working from home.
- “Last year was my most productive year – I was one of the top billing associates in the firm, and I got favorable news about my prospects as partner, which is my dream. But I would rather quit my job than be back in the office full time. This has been an insanely stressful time for everyone, but we’ve also learned that you absolutely can be productive outside of the office.”
- “The last year proved that everyone at my law firm can do their jobs wonderfully without being in the office. The pandemic has changed our firm forever.”
Staff are feeling neglected and underappreciated.
- “Staff has been completely disregarded. We’re people too, and we had to pivot to remote work just like attorneys did. We certainly didn’t see any COVID bonuses for working from 7 a.m. – 9 p.m.”
- “Why does a solution have to be one-size fits all or flexibility just for attorneys? Professional staff share some of the same concerns as the attorneys.”
COVID safety is still an issue, especially thanks to the new Delta variant.
- “Everyone will not be vaccinated so I am not looking forward to going back.”
- “I will not return to the office until my children are vaccinated.
Are you ready to return to the office? We know the attorneys who responded “noooooooooooooooooooooo” and “WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY – seriously there isn’t a good reason” aren’t looking forward to it. As with all things having to do with COVID-19, these plans are likely subject to some amount of change, but be sure to prepare yourselves for office life once again — because it’s happening, and soon.
Staci Zaretsky is a senior editor at Above the Law, where she’s worked since 2011. She’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to email her with any tips, questions, comments, or critiques. You can follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.