Why Face Time in the Office Is Needed for Law Firm Associate Professional Development

Much has been written lately about law firms and their ever-evolving policies related to returning to the office. The current hiring environment has seen a high demand for associate talent, which raises the stakes on “return to the office”: Get it wrong, some warn, and firms risk losing associates to firms that are more “flexible.” But is flexibility really the right focus for associates looking to grow as a lawyer?

I have been speaking with partners, associates and management on this topic for well over a year now, and I have three thoughts on how law firm associates should be evaluating their careers.

  1. Law firm associates had flexible work schedules before the pandemic, and they will after firms return to the office. Associates’ jobs before the pandemic were demanding and involved long hours, but associates were not chained to their desks. Associates were free to go to their kids’ games, school plays and doctor appointments as long as they got the job done. Sometimes, it seems to me, the discussion about returning to the office loses site of this important context.
  2. Time in the office meeting face-to-face with colleagues and mentors is hugely beneficial to associates’ training, mentoring and career development and their firms’ team-building and collegiality. These are the reasons law firm management wants to see their associates in the office. It isn’t an arbitrary exercise of power or because management wants to see the firm’s leased space occupied. Law firm leadership genuinely and legitimately believes that associates’ career development and connection to the firm are enhanced when associates spend more time in the office.  This does not mean law firm management isn’t impressed with how their associates pivoted to remote work last year; it just means they think working in the office is better for their associates’ development.
  3. In five years, associates who spent more time in the office this year and next will be better lawyers than their work-from-home counterparts and will have built stronger and more marketable practices. Some of my MLA colleagues might disagree with me on this last thought, and some law firm managing partners might object publicly. But nearly every law firm partner and managing partner I have spoken with on this topic agrees with me. There is much to learn from observation and general interaction that cannot be accomplished over a video call.  Being able to knock on a partner’s door with a question is invaluable as is the collaboration that can take place when meeting face-to-face.

The return to office isn’t meant to be a punishment or an attempt to take away well-earned privileges. Associates grow and learn from seeing more senior lawyers in action and having face-to-face interaction with their mentors. #careerdevelopment#lawfirm#associates

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