There is no longer any question that the hybrid work environment will persist. To be fair, lawyers have been working in hybrid environments for at least the last 20 years. Pre-pandemic, however, the remote environment captured what would have been otherwise free time. Technology allowed lawyers to work on the weekends from home rather than in the office, to work while traveling and during late nights and early mornings. When you provide service around the clock, across time zones, and on demand, you never have the bright lines between work and private life that many in other careers now have found fading as they newly discover that easy access at home has both costs and benefits for their work and home lives.
The difference today is that remote work is capturing what would otherwise have been office time. Having learned that we can be productive in a home office, effective in an MS Teams negotiation, or victorious through a Zoom cross examination, lawyers are exploring what that means for work schedules. Mondays and Fridays can be remote as a rule. Or perhaps it’s August away. Or just get into the office a couple of days a week (lawyers’ choice) to have in-person collaboration and brainstorming. That means that law firm managers – partners, primarily – have to figure out what the more hybrid law firm looks like and how to allow it to prosper going forward. The biggest factor in that equation is the same as it has always been: How do we effectively train and develop younger lawyers and ensure they gain the necessary experience to become excellent senior lawyers and future leaders?
Remote work and technological presence can provide a significant boon for firm training and associate management issues. The big takeaway is that managing remote, or more remote, lawyers takes more active planning on the part of the senior lawyer, but it has substantial benefits in addressing some of the law’s most intractable issues, specifically training, retaining, and growing a larger and more diverse group of excellent senior lawyers.
Lawyers review, research, write, analyze, strategize, and prepare by themselves. Not always, of course. Each of these undertakings can involve others from the beginning of the work or at different stages. But for extended periods of working time, these are individual processes requiring focus, quiet, and solitary energy. Lawyers learn, manage, present, synthesize, advocate, negotiate, and adjust through group work. Others need to be involved either in a meeting or through an iterative, asynchronous process.
Individual work, of course, is well-suited to the remote environment. Assuming that lawyers have the technology and environment they need, there is no reason that individual work cannot be accomplished away from the office. It is important for managing lawyers to remember, however, that not all of their colleagues automatically have the necessary technology or environment available to them. Office space and technology remain important for colleagues who would not otherwise have a quiet, safely confidential space to work in. Roommates, young children, loud surrounds, or poor internet connection can all make remote work untenable even for tasks that do not need to involve other people.
More difficult to gauge and solve is how working remotely may affect the approach of colleagues toward work. Distractions in the remote environment can obviously affect lawyers’ focus and time management. As to approach, remote work can lead lawyers, especially junior lawyers, to have a sense of “volleying.” Work comes over the transom, is dealt with, and is sent back. When a lawyer is in the office, a court room or a conference room, the lawyer is literally surrounded by their work. In the office, it is easier to preserve culture and create a sense that everybody involved is involved in an ongoing effort rather than piece work. That sense is particularly key to allowing junior lawyers to appreciate that there is meaning in what they do (a prime predictor of job satisfaction) and to their investing critical thought and effort in their work product. Rather than responding to a single comment with a single answer or adjustment, more invested junior lawyers will consider and address the broader implications and effects of comments or new data. They will apply more perspective and judgment, which is what will eventually make them excellent senior lawyers.
But that interaction does not happen automatically through office work, and it need not be precluded through remote work. Pre-pandemic, junior lawyers often criticized the office environment because it was overly isolating and not collaborative enough. That was, and is, a failure of their management by the more senior lawyers. Just because junior lawyers are more often given small discreet issues to work on, or more basic tasks to complete, does not mean that they cannot or should not be involved and included in the broader effort. Senior lawyers who do that well tend to convey how individual tasks play into broader strategy or undertakings, to keep the team in the loop, to give timely feedback on work, and to include junior lawyers in meetings and decision-making where possible.
Pre-pandemic, that effective management style often meant meetings in conference rooms or individual one-on-one “drop ins” to stop by an office and check on a project or associate. Senior lawyers could manage their dockets by doing rounds through the halls. Those methods were very effective for some senior and junior lawyers. But their limits, even when done well, were clear.
Except for managing lawyers who are exceptionally able, or who undertake exceptional effort, the flaws of in-person management echo the flaws of every other inter-personal relationship. Managing “by touch” can feel easy and natural, but when it does, it misses a lot of opportunity. For example, introverts who are not comfortable volunteering or riffing in meetings or during a one-on-one drop-ins may get lost in group environments or be seemingly unresponsive or unprepared in spontaneous interactions when the senior lawyer just knocks on a door. Lawyers who do not share the same background as other lawyers, or who did not go to the same school, grow up in the same places, watch the same games over the weekend, etc., may be excluded from discussions that precede or permeate substantive interactions. And where after-hours socializing or late-night work sessions are key to such interactions, care givers may end up excluded from some of the most important mentoring, training and managing.
This is where the benefits of a well-run hybrid work environment become most obvious. In managing remote or partially remote interactions, managing lawyers have to work harder. They cannot rely on instinctive inter-personal interaction over a telepresence chat. Remote meetings require more planning. Because cross-talk and interruptions disrupt remote meetings more than they do in-person meetings, they need to be controlled. Lawyers leading the meeting will or should assign specific speaking roles or call on participants to ensure that all of the information is shared. That means that introverts will be given more of a space to contribute. Implicit tendencies or assumptions for interactions should become less relevant, and substance is better brought to the fore. And one-on-one or off-hour interactions are scheduled, so that they are easier to attend and anticipate. In short, substance and planning become more important in a remote interaction, and that is beneficial for everybody, but particularly for those who might otherwise have been left out.
An important additional advantage of remote lawyering is that it is easier for junior lawyers to observe senior lawyers while they are performing, whether that be a client interaction, a negotiation, or an argument or trial. Although many miss the experience of learning at a mentor’s elbow, that was always a limited-access opportunity. Virtual presence expands the potential audience and allows junior lawyers to see how the big event plays out. That is a great training experience for everybody, but it is particularly important for junior lawyers who do not see themselves represented sufficiently in the ranks of the senior lawyers. Even where it is difficult to see yourself being the senior lawyer who is training you, when you watch the skills and substance, it can be easier to see yourself doing what the senior lawyer is doing.
All these factors suggest that our movement to more hybrid workspaces can lead to improvement in some of the biggest challenges our practices have faced. But we have to address the issues thoughtfully and with purpose to seize that opportunity.