Talent Drain: Why Remote Working Policies Matter in Law Firms Today

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...what happens next is likely more of a threat to law firm productivity versus the perceived danger during the pandemic

Seven years ago, in my last in-house role at a law firm, I asked management to allow a few members of my team to be remote one or two days a week. I had also asked the same question at the two firms I’d worked at previously. At all three organizations the answer, inevitably, was the same: no.

Despite being set up with the technology to securely support our work, firm leadership simply did not trust that my team could be as productive if they worked remotely. End of story.

Fast forward to 2021 and, for all of us, COVID-19 has proven this logic wrong.

Big picture: throughout the pandemic, despite the need for social distancing and remote working, law firms remained busy and marketing and business development teams operated at full capacity, without missing a beat. Anecdotally, my colleagues, friends, and clients within law firms all tell me that, for the most post, they’ve actually been more productive over the past 18 months, as they’ve benefited from the ability to establish more of a work/life balance while away from the traditional “office” setting.

And yet.

Today, many CMOs I speak with tell me that they are pushing for their firms to adopt policies that accommodate hybrid and/or remote working and, for many, the answer remains a resounding “No.”

I recently congratulated a marketing and BD chief, a seasoned professional in this landscape, when her team moved to a hybrid working model. “You have no idea,” she told me, “how hard it was just to get that from the firm.” Despite marketing and business development teams not just surviving but actually thriving over the past 18 months, we still work in a profession where it is considered a milestone, a breakthrough to allow a few people on your team to benefit from working outside the office a few days a week.

...people are exiting their jobs, and legal in general, because of the inflexibility and antiquated thinking in their firms

Meanwhile, here’s what the leadership at PWC had to say recently about remote working: "In what may be a game-changing announcement in the accounting, tax, audit and consulting sector, PwC announced that around 40,000 professionals in the U.S. will work virtually outside of the office. The generally white-collar workers could live anywhere they’d like for the foreseeable future.”

And from Novartis, the pharmaceutical giant: “We have introduced an updated flexibility policy that applies to all office-based associates, effective July 15, 2020. The policy shifts responsibility from manager-approved to manager-informed, empowering associates to choose how, where and when they work within their country of employment.”

(In a perspective piece like this one, discussing workplace policies in the legal landscape, it might be easy to see why I’d reference potential-competitor PWC’s approach, but this Novartis announcement is important, too. Why? During the most isolating days of the pandemic, in 2020, during a webinar presentation by in-house counsel, the panelists were unanimous in their message to prospective counsel, aka law firms: “Show us that you are responding to the moment. Understand our policies and emulate them.” Those are your clients telling you to get with the times or risk losing the work.)

Other organizations have announced flexible workplace policies that support their employees and respond to the massive changes we have seen over the past months, including: KPMG, Adobe, Amazon, Capital One, Facebook, Ford Motor, Microsoft, Nationwide Insurance, Salesforce, Target, and Verizon—to name just a few. Do you see any law firm names on that list?

Society 54 has been doing remote work — successful, efficient, productive remote work — for seven years. Our division seeing the most growth right now is … wait for … Talent. Indeed, we are busier than ever as we help firms with their talent shortages. Good for us, but not the professional landscape at large. It is clear to me that people are exiting their jobs, and legal in general, because of the inflexibility and antiquated thinking, in their own firms and many others.

When you consider this talent exodus, coupled with older generations retiring from their positions, it is clear that firm leadership needs to rethink how they are doing things. Especially when we’ve come so far around issues of productivity, efficiency, and workplace flexibility — do we really need to go backwards, to the pre-pandemic way of working together? We’ve come so far.

So, what should law firm leadership be doing about remote work policies?

Start by looking at the data: evidence of how well your marketers, business development teams, support staff (and lawyers for that matter!) managed to succeed during the past 18 months. Listen to your employees. Do the research; hope is not a strategy. Work with your teams to re-examine and redefine your remote working policies.

In my capacity, helping law firms across the board in many ways, it is clear to me that what happens next is likely more of a threat to law firm productivity versus what we perceived as the danger during the pandemic.

Your talent wants flexibility, now that they are used to it. And they deserve it, frankly.

Put in perhaps the starkest terms: one of our clients recently lost over 50% of the marketing and business development workforce over a six month period. The reasons are all outlined above. This is an expensive and, I would argue, predictable outcome. Law firm leadership needs to respond to this moment, unfolding over the next many months as we emerge from pandemic conditions, with a willingness to embrace change, and a desire to proactively retain their valuable employees by listening and acting. And enacting workplace policies that make sense in a post-pandemic world.

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Jill Huse is a past president of the Legal Marketing Association and partner at Society 54, a consulting practice for professional service firms.

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