Pandemic Accelerates “Paradigm Shift” to Hybrid Work in Big Law

During a time of heightened demand for business, the “pandemic generation” of new lawyers has an unprecedented amount of leverage in the world of big law. This month, Davis Polk joined the handful of top firms—including Millbank, Cravath, Goodwin Procter, and McDermott Will & Emery—offering yet another round of pay increases for incoming associates. Though the compensation competition is alive and well, firms are also prioritizing other aspects of associates’ experience to retain top talent. Progressive hybrid-remote work policies are one of its top priorities.

Long are the days when five days in the office were the status quo for large firms. The pandemic has proven that associates can be just as effective working remotely; thus, it is no surprise that associates are reluctant to give up the flexibility that remote work allows once Covid-19 recedes. In fact, recruiters worry that in-demand associates who feel “bullied” into the office may look elsewhere. “We’re not expecting that people to come back five days a week. Ever,” said Julie Jones, Chair of Ropes & Gray. Although hybrid work is the future of big law, what exactly does that look like?

Many top firms are pursuing an office-centric hybrid approach that requires a fixed number of days in the office. Firms like Skadden, McGuireWoods, and Cadwalader now require associates to come into the office at least 3 times a week. Many believe that this structured approach will allow firms to strike the right balance of flexibility and in-person relationship-building, training, and mentoring, aspects of the associate experience that are especially important for a profession built on an apprenticeship model. In an in-person office setting, facetime with higher-ups and impromptu hallway meetings are easier to come by. There is a stark difference between calling a supervising associate to ask a small question and briefly stopping by their office. Still, firms that intend to adopt more flexible approaches could reap relationship-building benefits by encouraging regular in-person meetings or social activities to naturally lure associates back into the office and facilitate organic meetings.

An in-person requirement may also permit firms to sidestep information exchange hurdles. These obstacles may arise under more unstructured approaches in which in-office days are completely voluntary. Whether firms adopt fixed-day requirements or give associates more leeway, firms must take important preventative measures as it transitions from the remote-only system. For example, although firms utilized various technology platforms to facilitate team communications during the lockdown, it must ensure that the unplanned in-person check-ins are properly documented. This is crucial to keep remote party members informed. Firms will also have to figure out how to handle hybrid calls, whether by asking associates to log in individually from their desks or by re-configuring conference rooms to accommodate the new arrangement.

As Omicron infections continue to decline, firms are eager to resume office re-openings. Reed Smith, Goodwin Proctor, Morrison & Foerster, and Wilson Sonsini are amongst those targeting returns in late February and March. Of course, the details of the new hybrid approach will need constant tweaking, and firms will have to work to ensure that “people don’t get lost in the shuffle” as big law accommodates this new paradigm shift. Little doubt remains, however, that “hybrid work is the future.”