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Big Law firms are plotting their return to office. Here’s what lawyers are excited about — and what they’re dreading.

  • Law firms like Davis Polk and Sullivan & Cromwell are starting to usher lawyers back to the office.
  • Working from home has its perks, but it’s also exacerbated burnout among young lawyers.
  • Women and associates of color also worry about incidents of bias in everyday in-person encounters.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As vaccinations continue to ramp up and infection rates drop in most US states, law firms are beginning to shepherd their employees back to the office.

Davis Polk & Wardwell recently said that it’ll be welcoming back lawyers and staff in its New York office in mid-May with an optional two-day “Spring Back to the Office” program, enticing employees with meal reimbursements. Sullivan & Cromwell took things a step further, informing lawyers of a mandatory return-to-office plan slated for July 7.

As excitement grows that they may soon see their colleagues in person — in the office kitchen and at swanky firm lunches — lawyers are weighing the pros and cons of ditching their makeshift offices at home.

Working from home during the pandemic has been both boon and bane for many lawyers. While attorneys rejoiced at shedding their commutes, many found that the blurring of office and home only exacerbated their already-strenuous work lives. Young lawyers are suffering from burnout, with some telling Insider that they are “stretched beyond capacity” by the demands of non-stop at-home work.

Insider spoke with six partners and associates to learn how they’re thinking about returning to the office, from mentorship and training to incidents of bias. The associates who spoke to Insider requested to remain anonymous to protect their identities and careers at their firms.

Junior associates are more eager to return to the office than senior lawyers

A major concern with remote work has been its potential impact on mentorship and training. Without the casual water-cooler conversations or office drop-bys, associates — especially more junior ones — might miss out on opportunities to organically develop relationships with mentors and partners. This can have profound consequences on their career development.

Some firms are more or less requiring younger attorneys to come in, according to a junior associate at a Big Law firm in Los Angeles, who requested anonymity. In an email sent to their lawyers, the firm “highly encouraged” junior associates to return to the office. “It seemed like it was pretty imperative to come in, for the mingling and camaraderie. I think it’ll be contingent on seniority,” the associate told Insider.

While many firms are taking a hybrid approach, allowing staff to work some days at home and others in the office, this flexibility could lead to a mismatch between junior lawyers who are seeking mentorship and senior lawyers who’d prefer to stay home.

There are “absolutely” differences based on seniority when it comes to a desire to return to the office, said Trace Schmeltz, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg. “The mid-level and senior associates are pretty content — they know how to work, and are happy to stay the course. It’s the newer ones who are more actively trying to make those connections.”

A midlevel associate at an Am Law 100 firm added that he’d “definitely” be concerned with the growth trajectory of first-years in particular. “So much learning is just immersive — it’s shadowing, listening, even overhearing — and that’s a lot of the stuff that you miss out on being fully remote, but to a lesser extent with a hybrid model,” he said.

For better or for worse, the culture of law firms will shift

After more than a year of remote work, US law firms are concerned that their collaborative culture — which they see as integral to winning cases or closing deals — has suffered.

In an internal survey conducted by Allen & Overy, some lawyers said they miss “being energized by engagement with other people, and that’s not easily replicated by Zoom,” said Tim House, a senior partner at the firm. He added that it’s “impossible” to celebrate a group achievement, like a big deal going through, in a virtual environment.

The pandemic has also highlighted the most negative aspects of Big Law’s long work hours. Some firms have made small changes to ease the workload. Dentons asked their US partners to cancel routine, non-essential meetings, while others, and firms including Dechert and Orrick are giving their staff extra days off.

“You can establish a reputation or camaraderie over being miserable, working late nights together in a war room,” said the Am Law 100 associate. “It’s somewhat glorified in shows like ‘Suits’… but obviously you’re going to burn out over time without breaks between fire drills.”

Remote work is creating a productivity drain, especially as the boundaries between work and life have physically been erased.

“The work-life divide has been demolished. Working from home, people get the unnecessary feeling that if they’re not working all the time, they’re slacking off,” said the Big Law associate in Los Angeles. “I think people have been working even harder during work-from-home.”

Many law firms are becoming more flexible as a result of the pandemic. Allen & Overy, for instance, isn’t requiring US lawyers to return to the office by a fixed date, said House, and is instead “providing guidance” on flexible hybrid policies, which he expects to remain in place for the near future.

“I would give up a big, swanky office for flexibility to work remotely for part of the week,” said the Am Law 100 associate.

Women and lawyers of color fear more instances of microaggressions at work

Although virtual work could be seen as an equalizing force across rank, gender, and race, some lawyers say some people, especially those with a minority identity, are still being overlooked — and literally so.

“You still have people being excluded on emails or Zooms, just like they’d be excluded in a meeting. Or they’d be talked over during online meetings,” said a Big Law female associate who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity. “At [my former firm,] junior associates wouldn’t have their videos or audio on… They’re literally not seen on Zoom.”

That said, some attorneys fear a return to the office will bring back the casual, often overlooked instances of bias that occur in-person, especially since these instances largely occur due to implicit biases. Despite the trending corporate attention to movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and Stop Asian Hate, “people don’t change that fast, the way that policies can,” said the Am Law 100 associate. After a year of self-isolating and quarantining, people are likely not used to socializing in-person, and may be more prone to conversational misunderstandings and microaggressions, he said.

In fact, things might even get worse than they were before if attorneys wear masks in the office as a health precaution.

“Will you know what I look like? White people often get other minorities confused even without a mask,” said a black, female incoming first-year associate at a Big Law firm who requested anonymity given the sensitive nature of the topic. “Maybe those white attorneys might be more hesitant to approach someone in fear of getting their name wrong. I don’t want that to happen. As a woman of color, we have to do more work than we already have to do, just to make those connections.”

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