by Michael Djavaherian
Every single day, there is a new story about large law firms that have announced their plans about reopening their offices. Nearly every BigLaw firm has made some kind of announcement in the past few weeks. National firms with expensive office space have considerations that involve more than the actual efficiency of working from an office. They typically occupy some of the most expensive office space in any large city. Though they have seen benefits from allowing work from home, those commitments may cause them to feel constrained to remain in an office environment, at least for the time being.
Some firms have announced a full return to the office. A few have allowed work from home to continue indefinitely. Others have announced varying forms of hybrid plans, that involve in-office work only a few days a week, or that allow some, but not all, of the lawyers, to continue to work from home. Nearly all that are reopening their offices have announced policies on vaccination that generally require staff to be vaccinated.
Meanwhile, as BigLaw profits soared during the pandemic, and as associate hourly workloads reached the breaking point, all the big firms announced HUGE pay increases and bonuses in an effort to stem the tide of young lawyers throwing in the towel, leaving for the more relaxed corporate world, moving to government jobs or smaller firms, or just quitting. Law firms learned during the pandemic that those growing profits came at the cost of the well-being and mental health of all those minions who were toiling away from home, available for assignments at any hour of the day or night. Many now understand that that level of commitment cannot last forever, and that partners will need to share a greater portion of the earnings with associates if they want to retain them.
In a real-world example, third year associates in one large national firm were earning $250,000 at the start of 2021. A few months ago, they were provided with an $80,000 bonus on top of that, but with a catch: It would be earned in 4 increments during the course of 10 months, to incentivize the associates to stick around. Even with such “golden handcuffs”, many associates have fled that firm and others like it for less lucrative work that provides, for them, a better work/life balance.
The upshot is that young lawyers are working harder than ever, but are at least being paid a lot more for it. Whether the increased salaries trickle down to the associates at smaller firms remains to be seen.
Lawyers at small firms and solo practitioners have much different practices, but have experienced some of the same issues as their BigLaw counterparts. Small firm lawyers were quick to adapt to the pandemic, using tools such as XIRA and Zoom to run their practice from home or on the road.
For those who did not previously work from home, there is now the decision about whether to return to life in an office. They may face a situation where they have been paying rent on an office that they could not use during the lockdowns, and that they may not want to return to. Do they abandon an office they are paying for, and if so, how do they do so without incurring liability to the landlord? Each situation, and the terms of each lease, are different, so lawyers will have to work through that individually or firm by firm. If they decide to stick with the virtual office that they became accustomed to during the pandemic, they might still consider the part time rental plans available in office suites in every city, that allow hourly, daily, or weekly rental of offices and conference rooms, for those occasions when you need to meet in a professional setting.
Small firms will also have to work through their policy on vaccinations for staff and visitors. The requirements and practices vary widely from state to state, and the policies of small offices undoubtedly will, too.
Firms big and small are all emerging from their caves and fallout shelters, staring up at the sky and blinking at that bright sunlight beginning to shine on all of us. We remember how it was before, and we know we learned a lot of things while we were away from each other. Much of the old way was good–the camaraderie, the fancy digs, the mentoring, close supervision and resources available to firms working together in a large office. Much about working during the lockdown was also good–no long commute, time close to family, ability to work in pajamas, flexible hours, working from anywhere, virtual court appearances and client meetings with no travel time.
In the future, while some lawyers will remain part of the old ways, and a substantial number will adopt the virtual lifestyle in whole, I suspect that for the majority of lawyers the future will hold a mix of both old and new ways, much like the hybrid models that some firms are following. Remote practice and work from home will be a part of those practices, as will office conferences and in-person office work some portion of the time. Large firms will probably reduce the amount of office space rented, and small firms may move to part time or as-needed plans. As for those overworked associates at big firms, I think over time firms will learn to find ways to ease the burden. They have always been overworked, but never to this extent, and it cannot last.