Anyone with a finger on the pulse of the legal industry is fully aware of the ongoing associate salary arms race among big law firms. It seems that large law believes that money is the only effective weapon in their arsenal in the battle to attract and keep the best people.
But what if this approach is myopic, and there are more effective, sustainable methods that don’t come directly off the bottom line?
Let’s talk about two such offerings – technology and flexible work practices.
“I took a company public while working remotely overseas.” – a GC in the finance industry
Tech-adept legal professionals now expect that their firms will provide the tools needed to generate work product efficiently, with minimal time spent on low value/non-billable tasks. Automation technology can drive efficiency in many legal processes, both billable and non-billable. Automating time spent on administrative tasks gives time back to your team without impacting their ability to achieve billable hour thresholds. They can spend that found time on more billable work, but what if you market these tools as a way to improve the quality of life for your team?
Time is a non-renewable resource. A legal professional typically spends upwards of 30% of their time on admin tasks – that’s around 700 hours a year spent on unrewarded work! If you can demonstrate that you can give your people more time to themselves by arming them with the right tech, then you are offering something potentially more valuable than an extra bit of salary. What if you could herald that you could provide an extra 100 or 200 hours of personal time since you offer the right technology? Younger lawyers with an expectation for work/life balance, as well as experienced professionals who are looking for a better situation will see the attraction, including how well they compare to their industry peers. Mental health and wellbeing, plus recruitment and retention are all positively impacted.
“I will take a job with any firm that will allow me to work fully remote.” – a director at an AmLaw 100 firm.
Speaking of work/life balance, you don’t even need a finger on the industry pulse to be aware of the seismic shift in physical work practices since early 2020. Swarms of locusts appeared, and the rivers ran red as firms prepared for the financial Armageddon of closing physical offices.
But, for the most part, the legal industry suffered no such catastrophe. Maybe Bruce Willis and his intrepid team of drillers managed to save the day, or maybe people in the industry adapted and, in many cases, thrived.
Many got used to working from home, with the associated technological, logistical and familial challenges. Many liked that the hassle, expense and time commitment of the daily commute was gone. Many liked that the hassle and expense of grabbing coffee and lunch was replaced with a few steps to the kitchen. And many liked breaking the bondage of the expectation to wear pants.
Firms enjoyed the reduced overhead of empty offices and being able to cast a wider geographical net to attract talent.
So we made things work while enjoying the benefits of remote work. Why then, are some firms hellbent on pressuring their teams back into the office? Why not grasp this rare opportunity to not only keep operational costs lower, but also offer flexible work practices as a marketing tool to recruit and retain talent? While firms are announcing mandated returns to the office, there’s an opportunity to position your firm as a home for anyone who wants to use workplace flexibility to improve their quality of life.
We generally hear five arguments in the case for returning to the office:
The traditional apprenticeship model
Senior legal professionals have always felt the need to mentor developing professionals like associates in person. Adapting to remote work, though, has actually improved the quality of mentorship for some professionals by forcing them to create more structure rather than relying on an ad hoc approach.
Another ‘traditional’ approach to legal processes is for partners to walk the halls and physically allocate work to associates or other support staff. This could lead to inequitable allocation by proximity or worse, by familiarity. Remote work has encouraged the use of digital allocation technology, including tools that employ ‘blind’ work allocation, thus making this process easier and more equitable.
This is how I refer to keeping tabs on how hard people are working. Workflow technology can be a more scientific approach to performance assessment and is effective in a remote setting. Though if you are approaching your team with suspicion rather than trust, there are deeper issues to be sorted than workflows!
There are other ways to build a team culture than seeing each other at work or socially afterwards (when many are unable to join due to other commitments). In fact, like with the apprenticeship model above, structuring team building events will allow for greater participation and equity.
You assume that clients expect to meet in your office. But that assumption rests on the expectation that they want to come into the city regularly. Client organizations were hit by COVID too, and law firms aren’t the only ones that have adapted to remote work. Your clients may also be delighted by lower bills due to your reduced overhead!
Innovative, forward-thinking firms have a massive opportunity to lead in building and keeping the most talented teams. An offer of improved quality of life and flexibility will not only appeal to talent, but it will keep them happier, more productive and loyal.