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:
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.
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.
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.
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