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Are legal professionals ready to return to the office?

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Now that mask mandates are being lifted across the country, the return to in-office work seems inevitable. However, anxiety about COVID-19 remains high due to the absence of consistent universal protocols and less-than-ideal vaccine rates, especially amongst children, many of whom do not yet qualify for the vaccine.

For those reasons, many legal professionals are reluctant to return to the office full-time, or even on a hybrid basis. However, despite the general sense of uneasiness, not all law firm leaders are willing to address these concerns. This presents a challenge for legal employers seeking to fully re-open their offices this summer.

The high levels of discomfort expressed by many lawyers regarding the return to the office was highlighted in by the results of recent survey of legal professionals. The survey, “Lawyers Perspectives on Returning to the Office,” was conducted by Law360 and Pulse and Major, Lindsey and Africa. More than 2,500 attorneys responded to it and the results provide lots of useful insight into how different segments of the legal professional population view the return to in-office work.

Not surprisingly there was a marked difference in perspective depending on the age, gender, geographical location, and job function of the responding attorney.

For example, 46% of law firm partners reported that they were “eager” or “very eager” to return to the office compared to only 27% of associates. Younger attorneys also expressed more of a reluctance to return to a 5-day in-office work week schedule, with only 7% wanting to do so compared to 27% of partners.

Similarly, a generational divide was apparent when it came to attitudes about the return to in-office work. 51% of Baby Boomers and 57% of attorneys who were part of the Silent Generation were “eager” to return to the office. In comparison, one 22% of Millennials and 40% of Generation X attorneys were “eager” to transition to in-office work.

Older attorneys were also more likely to seek a return to working in-office 5 days per week. 30% of Baby Boomers were embraced that concept, compared to only 21% of Generation X attorneys and 10% of Millennial lawyers. In comparison, a hybrid work schedule where in-office work occurred a few times each week was supported by 41% of the Baby Boomer lawyers surveyed, 48% of the Generation X lawyers, and 49% of Millennials.

There were also differing perspectives offered by men and women when it came to the return to work. More men (47%) were “eager” to return to the office than women lawyers (28%). Men were also more inclined to return as soon as possible and were less concerned about achieving herd immunity. 26% of women lawyers wanted to wait for herd immunity compared to only 16% of men.

Given these varied results, it’s clear that law firm leaders seeking to return to full capacity operations in-office in the near future face an uphill battle. Conflicting interests are at play and many employees are resistant to the idea of retiring to work full-time - and for very valid reasons.

The question then remains: Will legal employers take heed and address these legitimate concerns prior to requiring legal professionals to return to the office on a full-time basis? Or will the reluctance be brushed aside and ignored, to the very real detriment of the mental and physical health of both the legal professionals themselves and their families?

That’s a question for the ages, and only time will tell. But if you happen to be in the position of making that decision on behalf of others in your law firm, I strongly recommend that you tread lightly. Otherwise you run the risk of experiencing the migration of foundational talent from your firm, an event that could likely have a detrimental impact on your firm’s long term - and successful - recovery from the effects of the pandemic.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com.