Hiring for the 'New' Legal Workplace: What CLOs and Employers Should Know

When offices began to shutter their doors in March of 2020, few anticipated how much the work landscape was about to change. Suddenly, entire legal departments found themselves at home trying to adapt to the demands of remote work, stay healthy and navigate the hazy boundaries between their job and personal life.

More than a year later, it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our work lives in many profound and permanent ways. This is especially true for the legal industry, which has always been enchanted with the concept of face time. We have since collectively learned that attorneys can work from home and that face time is not necessary to be productive—nor is working during “regular” business hours. At the same time, challenges have emerged for both leaders and lawyers who are now trying to find their footing in a strange new world.

Challenges from a CLO Perspective

From conversations I have had with my fellow CLOs and GCs, it’s clear that the shift to remote work has made it more difficult to maintain a cohesive and engaged legal team. Impromptu desk drop-bys, lunchroom conversations and water cooler banter—all staples of the office environment—abruptly vanished. This has impacted working relationships by eliminating opportunities to collaborate, problem solve or just socialize. Emailing or video calling is generally not as fast or efficient as popping over to someone’s desk. Replies may take hours or even days—or questions may go unanswered altogether. Communication breakdowns are more common between colleagues, as well as between the legal department and other business units.

Then there’s Zoom. While teleconferencing is a wonderful tool that has allowed us to maintain some semblance of face-to-face interaction, it has its pitfalls. In virtual meetings, employees’ non-verbal cues are not easy for leadership to read and can be missed or misconstrued. Technological issues like slow Internet connections can wreak havoc on attempts to listen and communicate. And video meetings don’t provide the same collegiality that comes with sitting side-by-side with your team in a conference room.

The Struggles of In-House Lawyers 

While most in-house lawyers have embraced the flexibility and convenience of remote work, most will acknowledge that it’s not without drawbacks. Working virtually often translates into an expectation of 24/7 accessibility, which in turn blurs the boundaries of work and home life. The very nature of working in one’s house, where family members and other distractions loom, can eat away at productivity when compared to being in an office. This can result in time spent playing catch-up early in the morning or late at night. Add to this the extra workload many lawyers have taken on during the pandemic, and the risk of burnout is real.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Is returning to the office in-person full-time a viable “new normal” for in-house counsel? Not likely. According to a survey by the American Bar Association (ABA), most lawyers have no desire to revert back to office policies that were in place pre-pandemic. In the survey, 36% of lawyers indicated that they would like the flexibility to set their in-office schedule week-to-week. Global Workplace Analytics forecasts that by the end of 2021, 25-30% of the workforce will be working remotely multiple days a week. This prediction is attributed to greater employee demand for remote options, less stigma associated with remote work and more awareness of the cost savings that can be reaped with work-from-home programs.

Understanding the mindsets of legal leaders and in-house attorneys is fundamental to shaping effective recruitment and retention initiatives post-COVID. From a recruiter’s perspective, here are some strategies to consider in your planning:

  • Offer remote work arrangements: No matter your organization’s past stance on working from home, being open to this model now will be critical in attracting quality candidates. We’ve noticed that some lawyers are not interested in an opportunity at all if a 100% remote option is not offered. However, the solution doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all. You can create a hybrid work schedule that blends remote and in-office days or permit arrangements based on individual lawyers’ needs.

Consider, too, that hiring all-remote attorneys puts you at a recruiting advantage. Without geographic limitations, you can recruit talent from broader—and potentially cheaper—markets.

  • Allow for flexible employee schedules: The pandemic has reshaped what a workday looks like, making 9-to-5 an outdated concept. People have gotten used to being at home with and for their families. They want to be able to go to the gym, volunteer in their child’s classroom and keep doctor’s appointments without having to take PTO. Allowing your lawyers to keep flexible hours can give you serious leverage in your hiring efforts.
  • Prioritize your employees’ mental health: The World Health Organization officially recognizes workplace burnout as a health diagnosis, defining it as feelings of exhaustion, mental disconnectedness and reduced productivity. According to a Monster survey taken at the height of the pandemic, 69% workers were experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home, compared to 35% just a couple months prior.

The takeaway for employers? Be proactive in identifying and preventing employee burnout. In a survey by FlexJobs and Mental Health America (MHA), 56% of employees listed workday flexibility as the top way their workplace could support their mental health, followed by 43% who emphasized time off and mental health days. Other strategies for managing burnout include creating employee resource groups (ERGs) and respecting work/home life boundaries. In other words, resist the urge to schedule meetings at 7:30 in the evening.

  • Implement regular 1:1 meetings and check-ins: As recruiters, we know that one of the biggest reasons attorneys move on to greener pastures is because they don’t feel their manager cares about them—personally or professionally. That’s why CLOs and GCs need to go the extra mile to stay connected with their staff working remotely. Being empathetic, approachable, and present is key. Routine one-on-ones are a good opportunity for CLOs and GCs to gauge lawyers’ emotional wellness and address professional development needs, demonstrating that the company is invested in its people.

Additionally, if some lawyers are remote while others are in the office, legal leaders must be much more intentional about how work is doled out, being careful not to favor face-to-face employees. Task remote employees with leading meetings and find ways to ensure their voices are being heard during each meeting.

  • Kick your diversity efforts into high gear: A diverse workforce is not only good for profit, it enables happier teams and a more vibrant exchange of ideas. Keep in mind that diversity goes beyond gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. It also involves assembling teams of people with different learning styles, ideologies, and life/work experiences. Recruiting from only top law schools may sound good on paper, but in truth, it cancels out an enormous market for diverse talent. In the same vein, hiring associates exclusively from big firms doesn’t necessarily translate into good work experience—some are doing doc review and not getting the work experience or opportunities that mid-size firm associates are.
  • Be aggressive with recruitment: It’s currently a buyer’s market, where in-house attorneys are the buyers. Great candidates likely have multiple opportunities to choose from. As we move past the pandemic, employees are asking themselves big questions and rethinking their career choices. This necessitates upping the ante when it comes to recruiting by shortening hiring time and beefing up your compensation packages.

Like it or not, the pandemic has redefined how CLOs and GCs lead and how in-house counsel work, and we must adapt to these new rules of engagement. Use this opportunity to reimagine a compassionate, flexible and diverse workplace that makes all employees feel engaged and valued. By tailoring your practices to meet lawyers where they are right now, you will be in a good position to preserve the talent you have—and build a strong workforce for the future.

Co-Authored by Mary Chapin, Chief Legal Officer of National Student Clearinghouse

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