As more lawyers return to office, ABA finds stark split on remote work

(Reuters) – As the pandemic recedes and legal employers weigh long-term policies for in-office work, a new American Bar Association report released Wednesday outlined the premium that younger lawyers place on being able to work from home.

In a clear generational divide, the survey found 44% of lawyers that have practiced for 10 years or less would leave their job for another one that provides a greater opportunity to work remotely. Only 13% of lawyers practicing for 41 years or longer reported they would do so.

The findings have implications for how law firms, companies, government agencies and other employers craft return to office requirements and how they can attract and retain lawyers.

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“A failure by legal employers to provide the desired flexibility will no doubt tempt many younger lawyers to vote with their feet and leave their place of employment for more accommodating employers,” wrote the report’s authors, Roberta Liebenberg and Stephanie Scharf of consultancy The Red Bee Group.

Law firms have so far taken different approaches to return to office mandates, with some requiring lawyers and staff to work in person on several specific days of the week. Some firms are allowing employees to choose whether to go in at all.

To keep younger lawyers, who the report said are made up of higher percentages of women and lawyers of color, employers should consider adopting hybrid policies that offer flexibility, with the aim of maintaining lawyer engagement with the firm and fostering “a culture in which a lawyer’s decision to work remotely does not derail their career,” the authors wrote.

Higher percentages of women than men, and lawyers of color than white/caucasian respondents, reported more concern that they would miss business development opportunities, get paid less and be overlooked for certain assignments if they don’t work in the office when asked by their employer.

While 27% of female respondents said they were “extremely” or “very” concerned that their employer would see them as not committed in that scenario, only 13% of male respondents reported the same. When broken down by race and ethnicity, 22% of lawyers of color were worried about that outcome compared to 18% of white/caucasian lawyers.

Lawyers also largely reported that remote and hybrid work arrangements since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic did not negatively affect their work quality, productivity or billable hours worked. For example, 90% of respondents overall said there was either no impact or an increase in the quality of their work.

Women in particular were more likely to report positive changes across those categories, and some were also better able to balance work and family responsibilities, the report said.

Remote work has also had significant negative effects, the report found. Overall, 23% of respondents experienced increased stress levels and 42% felt heightened social isolation. Additionally, nearly half felt declines in the quality of co-worker relationships.

The report, which includes responses from May 31 to June 15 from nearly 2,000 ABA members who work in jobs requiring a law degree, also includes other data on stress, diversity, equity and inclusion and technology.

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