When I was young (this is where my teenaged son would interject a question about what the Industrial Revolution was like), I read more than a few Choose Your Own Adventure books. The reader was cast in the role of the protagonist, and at the end of a section, the reader would be faced with a choice – e.g. “if you choose to go through the door on the left, turn to page 34; if you choose to go through the door on the right, go to page 51.” The reader would then turn to the applicable page and read on to find the consequences of the previous choice.
At least in part, the lesson was that life is full of choices, and those choices have consequences. I recently thought of those books in the context of the post-pandemic conundrum du jour of what we have come to call return to office. Lost in the midst of the conversation about top-down edicts and the reactions thereto is that attorneys have more latitude than ever to make choices about where and how they work. And as they make those choices, they find out there are consequences—some not as obvious as others.
We know the story that leads up to the choice that many now have. Prior to 2020, working from home was a nice perk employers allowed on the occasional Friday or, if you were lucky, a few times a month. Coming into the office was rarely questioned or thought of as optional. But then the pandemic overtook the world and business shifted to 100% remote operations overnight—and stayed that way for over a year in the U.S. (and much longer in other places in the world). Partners and associates became accustomed to the flexibility and freedom that came with working from their homes or another remote location, especially once travel bans and other restrictions were lifted.
Law firm leaders understood the extenuating circumstances people were facing initially with schools operating on unusual schedules, people moving away from where their office was located and back to where family lives, and more. But now, as business operations have been “back to normal” for well over a year, law firm leaders are calling for their people to come back to the office to revive the culture, encourage collaboration and improve training—to name a few reframes. Lawyers, however, are pushing back as they have become comfortable in their new routines. The result has been a steady flow of office policy announcements about returning—running the gamut from five days a week to retaining complete optionality—accompanied by the applicable reasoning for the policy and, in some cases, consequences for non-compliance.
It's a battle for the ages with no right answer it seems. But the noise of said battle can obscure the fact that for lawyers and law firms increased flexibility is a choice that is as much about how they work as where they work, and there will be consequences to that choice due to the dynamics of human interaction.
In general, human bonds are stronger based on how they are formed and nurtured on an ascending level of intimacy (e.g., social media vs. letters/emails vs. phone calls vs. video calls vs. in-person interaction). And, of course, those bonds will be crucial to career development. So, instead of asking, “Why should lawyers/I return to office?”, why not consider, “What are your/their career goals and how does your/their choice to be in the office impact those goals?” Not all roles require in-person attendance to be successful as we have learned, but some do.
For associates, there is a strong argument that when they are just starting out, they should be in the office to “learn the ropes.” Face-to-face training and mentoring are almost undeniably more effective than virtual, and this is a view I hear almost without exception from partners. Of course, this means the partners training them need to put in facetime, too; it’s part of the job as a trainer, mentor and role model. I also often hear from partners that they trust associates they see in person more readily, so if an associate wants to work on the best deals/cases, showing up may benefit them. Associates are also more likely to be introduced to key members of the law firm and important clients if they are in the office when someone else happens to make an appearance. One partner I know made a basketball analogy: “If you hang around the hoop, you can’t help but get some rebounds." If you are choosing your own adventure, it sure seems like choosing the door marked “work in the office” more times than not is more conducive to professional development for younger associates.
But for partners and more senior associates who have already garnered the lion’s share of the superior mentoring and training that in person office attendance offers, the choice is more nuanced. This is because the consequences of that choice manifest themselves less in the skills and competencies necessary to practice law and more in achieving the attorney’s career goals.
It seems that many partners will place more trust in those with whom they’ve developed a solid relationship, and there is good reason to believe that those solid relationships are more readily developed in person. So, when offered the choice to work from home, whether explicitly or via a lack of consequences to non-compliance with policy, a senior associate or partner who does not prioritize business development or the quality of their work may be able to effectively practice from home and, therefore, choose that “door”. And through that door may well lie many of the benefits sought—more flexibility, closer proximity to family, less commuting time, less pressure to develop business (perhaps), etc. But, through that door is also, necessarily, risk.
Associates and junior partners who are trusted with the most sophisticated and critical work and have been introduced into client relationships are less dispensable than associates and partners who have not. The issue that arises, then, in going through the “work from home” door is the same issue that has always arisen for service partners: Their fate is ultimately in the hands of others. As long as those “others”—namely partners doling out work—are comfortable with the choice the service partner has made to work at home and are willing to feed adequate work to the partner, all is well. If not . . . well, as with the Choose your Own Adventure books, choices have consequences.
As a recovering lawyer, I am prone to pointing out the holes in arguments, and in the case of the one I’ve made above, one easily identifiable hole concerns those mentoring/training/rainmaking partners. Doesn’t the whole theory fall apart a bit if those partners don’t return to the office? It’s a fair point, and perhaps one that is more about organizational choices that law firms make, the consequences of which may not be obvious for some time, if ever. To wit: Will firms that lean into an in-person culture be more successful or provide better client service than firms who provide more flexibility to work from home? How will that answer drive firm policy and/or individual partner decisions about returning to the office?
All this to say that while the return to office debate is often framed in top-down edicts and enforcement mechanisms over the near term, in the long run, it may well ultimately work itself out based in large part on the choices attorneys are offered, and the adventure they choose—very much akin to discerning the more effective and lasting solutions in a given free market economy. And assuming clear communication around expectations on all sides, allowing attorneys to feel invested in their choice rather than having a choice dictated to them has its advantages. For many attorneys, it’s a real-life question posed by those books from my childhood: Which adventure will you choose?