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Rethinking In-Office Attendance For Associate Retention

There's no doubt that work culture in BigLaw firms has undergone tremendous change in the past three years. Now, as many firms are moving away from flexible work models and calling attorneys back to the office more frequently, some are going so far as to tie associates' bonuses to their in-office attendance.

This is not something that will be so easily accomplished. Whether attorneys come into the office with more regularity is a complex topic and one that will greatly affect associate retention and law firm culture moving forward. Consequently, it is crucial for law firms to carefully consider their decisions on this issue.

While some firms link in-office attendance policies to client expectations, training needs or the desire for more face time, many associates rightfully question how much of an impact office attendance will have on solving some of these challenges.

It is also important to remember that these challenges are only one side of the coin and that firms need to consider the broader implications of mandating in-office time.

Just to name a few, work-life balance, and the disproportionate effects that in-person workplaces have on certain individuals like women and caregivers, must be carefully weighed against the potential benefits of increased in-office presence.

Perhaps the most important point to emphasize is that simply because a firm decides that it wants to change its in-office attendance policy, it does not mean that associates can easily accommodate those requests.

Associates have made changes in their lives over the past few years with many molding their entire family's routine to the hybrid work model — that make the clock not so easily unwound. While there may be some associates that can quickly adjust to having more time in the office, there are others that quite simply cannot.

As a result, stricter attendance policies, including those tying bonuses to in-office attendance, are not an effective solution across the board. They are likely to lead to overall dissatisfaction and attrition issues because some associates won't be willing or able to handle the significant disruption to their lives.

As the world has shifted toward a more flexible work environment, firms that offer accommodating hybrid work policies will be more attractive to the associates that have enjoyed the flexibility they have had over the last few years — and have even been able to be more productive and present at work because of it. The bottom line is that rigid in-office policies are likely to be a major factor when an associate is deciding whether to join a firm.

Firms also need to carefully reevaluate the assumption that many hold that there is a connection between in-office attendance and an associate's success; by and large, the two are certainly not as linked as these policies suggest.

There is value in going into the office including the opportunity to benefit from collaboration, mentorship and training opportunities — but firms should think more creatively about how to encourage their attorneys to do so.

Looking at in-office attendance during annual reviews is reasonable, but this metric shouldn't be put on a pedestal; it should be one of many factors considered in an attorney's overall performance.

As firms assess an associate's work, they should evaluate productivity, quality of work, client satisfaction and the value brought to the firm, regardless of their work environment. Should some of these factors be falling short, only then should a firm look at in-office attendance, but not before that point.

In-office attendance should be a secondary metric, rather than having equal weight with the associate's overall success at executing their role. And in fact, firms should consider rewarding their highest-performing associates by granting them increased flexibility, rather than tying bonuses to being in the office just for the sake of it.

However, if firms are set on tying bonuses to in-office policies, clear expectations should be communicated and applied uniformly to all associates and partners. Varying attendance within teams can undermine the value of in-office presence.

Firms should also make clear why they want the associates in the office and take clear steps that accomplish those goals. Firms can focus on fostering a vibrant office culture by providing collaborative spaces, opportunities for networking and social activities.

This can encourage associates to see the office as a valuable and enjoyable place to work. Offering mentorship programs and professional development initiatives that are predominantly conducted in the office can also incentivize associates to come into the office for growth opportunities and guidance from senior attorneys.

There isn't a universal solution that will work for everyone, but reverting to outdated practices shouldn't be an option. In short, we can't put the toothpaste back in the tube — especially after the past three years of the pandemic, and the benefits associates saw from the increased flexibility that hybrid work gave them.

The hybrid model doesn't work for everyone, but it does for many. Balancing these two groups is important for associate retention and maintaining a law firm culture that supports all attorneys.

Acknowledging that different individuals have varied preferences and needs regarding work environments is important for associates; it helps them feel like they have a place at the firm. In the end, providing flexibility and accommodating unique circumstances will foster loyalty, engagement and overall satisfaction within the firm.

This is a complex issue that will take trial and error, and creative solutions to address. Doing so carefully and with a holistic view should be a priority for firms.

Using office attendance as a measure for associate bonuses has the potential to have an unnecessarily negative impact on associate retention, as well as undesirable ramifications on culture as it emphasizes a measure that isn't necessarily indicative of an associate's success.

Striking a balance between in-office attendance and flexibility, evaluating performance with a broader lens, and prioritizing individual well-being will contribute to a more inclusive, supportive and successful work environment for all.

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