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Law Firm Staffers Don’t Want to Return to Offices. Should They Get the Choice?

By Dan Packel for

Professional staffers might be the least excited of any of the groups within a large law firm to get back to the workplace.

Yes, many firm leaders are still convinced that working in close proximity is necessary to keep the ties that hold a firm together from fraying. Partners value the routine they’ve developed from decades in the office, while ambitious associates want exposure to high-profile matters.

But 60% to 80% of the law firm professional staff surveyed by Cushman & Wakefield would be happy to continue working remotely, according to Sherry Cushman, executive managing partner of the commercial real estate brokerage firm. And a number of firms are likely to oblige, owing to the cost savings that they could realize from shrinking their real estate footprints.

“They can’t all stay at home,” Cushman said of staffers. “But firms are evaluating every single position.”

Firms have been slow to telegraph any definitive plans about specific work-from-home policies when the threat of COVID-19 recedes. A recent Ropes & Gray internal memo did plant a stake in the ground by targeting early September for an office return timeline, but it not address the place that virtual work would hold in the future. Firms have also been quiet about whether they will bifurcate policies between attorneys and staff.

Behind the scenes, firm leaders are closely eyeing the savings on real estate with more employees working remotely. Cushman noted that Am Law 100 firms that recently negotiated 130,000 square foot spaces are now looking at offices that measure 90,000 or even 55,000 square feet.

For those staffers who do get their desired end of continued virtual work, there will be some new strings attached, in the form of new performance parameters.

“There’s going to be quarterly performance reviews to make sure that people are maintaining the level of productivity they need,” Cushman predicted. But this could also be balanced out by individuals saving a substantial amount of money every year on expenses ranging from transportation to professional wardrobes and hairstyling, for example.

“You won’t have an issue with these protocols and performance reviews because you just got a 25% bump in your earnings,” Cushman added.

For others in the professional staff ranks, the future won’t necessarily be so rosy. Winston & Strawn chairman Thomas Fitzgerald recently speculated that automation will ultimately carve into some of these positions, estimating an eventual 60% reduction in the size of the accounting ranks, for example.

“Some people may be whittled down,” Cushman added.

Professionals that have previously bristled at the impression of a caste system that devalues their contributions in comparison to a firm’s attorneys should be leery of any sweeping policy that treats them differently from the timekeepers.

“This creates a further divide,” said Lucy Bassli, a former assistant general counsel at Microsoft who now works as a legal operations consultant. “I don’t see why there should be a difference as long as everyone’s using their professional judgment. It should be all about the work product.”

Amid heightened competition in the legal industry, the quality of client service is the way to stand out. One way to do this is dissolving the walls between attorneys and certain professional roles, like pairing attorneys with staff-side pricing experts. From that perspective, a bifurcated work-from-home policy would be akin to shooting oneself in the foot.

“If you’re looking to making multidisciplinary teams, any policy should be uniform,” Bassli said.  “Any divergence would directly impede that logistically and psychologically, for sure.”

The Marketer Paradox

Regardless of whether they have a choice, many professional staff would like to keep working from home.

The chief marketing officer for at least one Am Law 50 firm has volunteered for the CMO’s department to continue to work virtually even after the threat of the pandemic is over, with hoteling available if personnel do need to come into the office.

In one way, marketers might be perfectly suited for continuing remote work. In a global firm, these individuals routinely work with partners around the world, through conference calls and increasingly via video. But on the other side of the coin, the people filling these roles are often among the most extroverted personalities within a law firm.

“I’d say it’s 50-50. A lot of us want to go back because we miss seeing people face to face. There’s that spark of innovation when you are together with other people in the room,” said Deborah Farone, the former CMO at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. “The others have gotten used to working virtually and they’re enjoying it.”

She added that just as mentorship and training are a critical part of the partner and associate dynamic, it’s also vital on the professional staff side of a firm.

“Good marketing people and good administrative suite people are always training their departments as well. That means really working side-by-side with people and role modeling side-by-side,” she said. “It’s much harder to do that when you’re doing it virtually. You have to be more intentional about your training.”

But not being centered around a physical office also makes it possible to cast a wider net for top talent, a significant advantage in an increasingly competitive hiring market.

“We certainly won’t abandon our office. I understand the importance of that fabric that’s created in a face-to-face environment, but there will be less importance placed on being in the office five days a week,” said Nixon Peabody chief marketing and growth officer Danielle Paige. “It opens up the opportunity on the professional side to look for talent regardless of geographies. It’s less important if you’re in New York, San Francisco or Idaho, and more important what kind of skills you can bring to the table.”