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Big Law is Ramping Up Pressure on Office Work in 2023

By Andrew Maloney for Law.Com

With most of Big Law implementing hybrid work policies, some law firms are continuing to ramp up pressure on office attendance in the early part of 2023, firm recruiters and analysts say.

The needle was already moving in that direction late last year, as law firms largely saw a dip in demand and anticipated economic challenges, while some even announced layoffs. But as employers continue to gain leverage, observers say the pushback on remote work could continue to increase. Law firms are being more open about tying pay or bonuses to office attendance.

One recruiter said she began to get significant pushback on partner candidates who wanted to work remotely last year and she expects to see more going forward if the economic crunch continues.

“What I’m hearing from law firms — a real frustration is that law firm leaders do want people back in the office, and they want it for partners as well,” said Lauren Drake, a legal recruiter and partner at Macrae in Washington, D.C. “I’m hearing by and large the partners are more on board than the associates. So in terms of the handful of partners we did place, in terms of positions, I think there will be even less [remote hires] because if firms are taking a slightly harder line with associates, they’re not going to want to hire someone [at the partner level] who doesn’t want to be in the office.”

Drake noted she works primarily with partners and said that she never saw a total embrace of completely remote hires at that level. But prior to the pandemic, “I don’t think anyone would’ve even suggested it,” she said. Since then, some candidates have approached her and her recruiting firm saying that was their preferred arrangement, even if it limited opportunities.

She said they’ve mostly been able to place those partners.

“But I think that there’s going to continue to be pushback on that, and more. Not just because of the economy, which is certainly part of it,” Drake said. “But that’s with respect to associates and who has the leverage, and with layoffs and all of that. People start to worry — and maybe [lawyers are] more cooperative” with what firms want, she said.

Law firms have also more openly rewarded lawyers for office attendance. Amid associate bonuse season, Sidley Austin has confirmed it asking “all of our lawyers and staff” to enter the office to “embrace the colloborative culture.”

At Polsinelli, CEO Chase Simmons said late last year the firm didn’t have a “one-size-fits-all” approach to in-office work, but was trying to be intentional about it and using “positive peer pressure” to ensure enough partners were there at any given time to train and mentor younger lawyers.

He said along with other, more subjective aspects of compensation, showing up to the office and mentoring were also beginning to matter more last year. “So the people who have played a bigger role, a positive role in that, in being in the office, mentoring, planning our retreats, we probably leaned in a bit more to try and recognize those people,” he said.

Mike Abbott, head of the Thomson Reuters Institute, said he thinks plenty of law firms are still caught between a rock and a hard place. They say they’d like to have people back in the office at least a few days a week.

“But very few organizations are willing to pull the trigger and mandate two to three days, or four, whatever it is,” he said in an interview, adding that firms are “doing what they can to encourage” attendance. He said he hadn’t heard of clients pressuring for lower bills if they had work done by remote lawyers. “That doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” he added.

Indeed, as one Am Law 100 leader summarized the dilemma earlier this year: “The real question is: do we lay down the law? Or is the cost of doing that not worth the price we will pay?”

Abbott said that question is not unique to law firms and exactly where a firm or company sits on the spectrum can depend on things like sector and location.

“We know banking is coming back more aggressively, and geographically there are some differences,” he said. “But anecdotally, I think nobody has completely solved for this yet.”