The Return to Offices: Associates are Voting with Their Feet

There have been endless reports arguing for both sides of the remote working debate, but how will the legal sector actually respond? Given their long-standing traditions, many firms may think that they can simply stick to the status quo. But those that do and demand a wholesale return to desks will likely see associates voting with their feet.

A year of remote training contracts, ballooning workloads and a lack of post-work tipples to destress with colleagues has created burnout amongst the associate population. We have been in conversation with exhausted associates who, having stepped up to prove they can work successfully remotely, have had their eyes opened to the realities of the traditional law firm model.

Now, younger lawyers are questioning whether the office is really necessary every day. If their partnerships crack the whip and demand ‘bums on seats’, why would they stay when others are embracing the flexible revolution? FreshfieldsNorton Rose Fulbright and Taylor Wessing are just three of the many UK powerhouses publicly committing to up to 50% of the week at home, and flexibility is for the taking across the pond, too. Players like Kirkland & Ellis are embracing greater home working by rolling out new laptops for juniors and firms such as White & Case have even had agile working policies in place since 2016, which allow lawyers to work remotely when required.

Associates are making it clear to us that they don’t want a completely remote model. If this year has taught us anything, it is that we need social interaction, especially for juniors learning their craft. But the past 12 months have also taught us that working from home does work. Associates are therefore demanding the option of flexibility – a couple of remote days a week, for example, or a set period for them to chase their digital nomad dreams. If firms deny them this, they will, and have already started to, jump ship.

Perhaps more than anything, junior lawyers are looking for freedom of choice. What they really need now is honest conversations with their partnership about the next chapter of their careers. Firms that are willing to openly discuss a more flexible model and give associates the power to choose which working style and lifestyle works for them will retain the best talent, and attractive compensation packages would be a cherry on top.

The tech sector has successfully worked with this model for years, so why not now the legal sector? Its younger demographic want more than just money in 2021; they want a voice, some control and a healthier work-life balance. We are even seeing some make a move in-house sooner because of it. To avoid losing young talent, firms must get flexible, and be bold with it. The recruitment race is changing. Which firms will keep up?

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