Want to Thin Your Law Firm's Head Count? Mandate 3 or More Days of Office Attendance

Lawyers overwhelmingly want more flexibility, and they're willing to jump ship to get it, a recent survey of 350 Big Law attorneys found.

Is allowance instantly strangers applauded

Throughout the pandemic, managing partners have asserted the necessity of bringing attorneys back to the office to mentor the next generation of lawyers and preserve their firm’s culture. With hybrid work policies now taking effect, these leaders are about to discover whether lawyers value their firm’s culture and mentorship over the ability to work from home.

If that sounds ominous, it should. Last week, the American Lawyer posted a survey asking Big Law attorneys to describe their firm’s return-to-office policy and reflect on how they felt about it. We also asked what could be improved and how these policies may impact lawyers’ willingness to move to another firm. We ultimately garnered 350 responses after our reporters and industry thought leaders shared it on their social media channels.

A White & Case associate summed up the prevailing mood: “If they try to get me back in the office[,] I will 100% leave.”

With 65 firms represented in our survey, roughly 60% of respondents said their firms were asking for three days per week of in-office work. A strong majority of those lawyers indicated that they wanted more flexibility from their firms, with an even split between lawyers who wanted full remote work and those who would be comfortable with one to two days per week of mandated attendance. Most of the lawyers who said that they were already talking to recruiters about firms with more flexibility came from the three-day group.

About 23% of lawyers said their firms were asking for one to two days per week in the office, and the vast majority of those lawyers said they were happy with their firm’s policy. Some still wanted full remote work, but⁠—in contrast to the three-day cohort—these lawyers largely said they would only consider quitting if this policy was changed to require more attendance.

Roughly 12% of respondents said their firm had no attendance requirement, although some attorneys said they felt pressured to show up regularly anyway. At Greenberg Traurig, a firm where attendance decisions are left to practice leaders, several respondents described their attendance requirements as a mystery. “It’s hard to complain when I’m 90% WFH because no one said anything,” one associate wrote. Another said they wished for more clarity, wanting one or two coordinated days of attendance “without the guilt trip.”

Several respondents from Sullivan & Cromwell, which declined to comment on its policy, said they felt pressured by senior partners to come to the office. “Attendance is highly encouraged and all the messaging from senior partners in management is on the importance of being in the office as often as possible, but there is not a rule on the number of days you need to be in the office,” one associate said.

Firms that articulated their fully flexible policies clearly, such as Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, mostly received high marks from their attorneys.

Officially, no firms in our survey confirmed that they had asked for more than three days of attendance, but eight respondents said that was either formal or implicit policy on a local or practice level. The majority of these respondents wished for more flexibility, either full remote or three days of required attendance.

Whose Culture Are We Returning For?

Several associates said the justification for these policies seemed rooted in partners’ nostalgic ideals of what a law firm office ought to be.  

“If I go in just so a partner can see me from a distance and not even care because he doesn’t know what I look like, and I really can’t go into someone’s office (everyone’s changed a bit post-COVID so walking into someone’s office is awkward), and I spend time commuting, it doesn’t add up,” said a Simpson Thacher & Bartlett associate.

A Cooley associate wished the firm’s policy was flexible and without expectations for in-office time. Cooley’s stated policy doesn’t include an attendance mandate for lawyers, but two of the four attorneys who identified themselves as Cooley associates said they sensed an unstated expectation of two to three days of attendance. (A Cooley spokesperson didn’t respond to an inquiry about the specifics of its policy.)  “Attorneys at various life stages (young kids) cannot be [as excited] about the return to the office as boomer partners,” the associate said.

And a handful of attorneys took return-to-work policies as a slight, considering the number of hours they’ve billed for their firms. Rather than bringing attorneys back to a culture of collaboration, they felt a culture of disrespect.

“I personally prefer to work in the office, so [a policy change] probably wouldn’t sway me,” said an Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart associate. “But I think it contributes to an overall culture that doesn’t respect employees.” A Locke Lord associate echoed the sentiment, asking “Why do we have a weekly minimum [attendance requirement] when we billed more hours than ever while working from home due to COVID?”

Luring Lawyers With Flexibility

More than two-thirds of our respondents indicated they wished their firm’s policies were more flexible. By comparison, five attorneys said they felt their firm’s policies were too flexible, leading to empty offices and lost opportunities for collaboration.

Among the lawyers who said they were prepared to quit over an attendance policy, most drew the line at a hypothetical five-day return to the office. “I would not move to a firm with a strict policy,” said a Latham & Watkins associate, who indicated that the firm required two to three days of in-office work. “If I can be trusted to bill 2,600+ hours a year, I can be trusted to work from home.” (Latham & Watkins did not confirm its policy by deadline.)

However, about a third of lawyers facing three-day attendance mandates—and some lawyers with more flexibility than that—said they were exploring options for more flexibility.

At Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, where attendance is mandated on Wednesdays with an additional one to two days of weekly attendance encouraged, a midlevel associate said they were already looking at other firms with a more flexible work-from-home policy. And a Dentons associate who said associates were required to come in three days each week said they would “move to any firm that wishes to get with the times.” (A Dentons spokesperson said the firm was still finalizing its policy.)

Some attorneys indicated that policies had already factored into lateral decisions. A recent Morrison & Foerster hire said they didn’t go to Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison because of that firm’s three-day attendance policy, while McDermott Will & Emery and King & Spalding apparently gained lawyers based on their hybrid policies.

Enforcement Will Be Decisive

A number of lawyers at firms such as Milbank, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, White & Case, Reed Smith, and Covington & Burling said their decision over whether to stay at their firm hinged on whether the firm enforced an existing attendance policy.

In an email, a White & Case spokesperson said the firm’s attorneys were expected to spend about 60% of their time in the office, while the “I will 100% leave” associate said the effective policy was fully remote. Another White & Case associate would consider moving to another firm with a more flexible policy, “assuming this means that [White & Case] actually monitors attendance.”

At Reed Smith, several associates said the firm’s three-day attendance policy wasn’t being enforced, although certain attorneys felt pressured to follow it. “No one comes into the office regularly except the juniors who feel powerless to do anything else,” said a midlevel associate.

Another associate didn’t see the need to return to an office where, pre-pandemic, they mostly worked with their door closed.

“If they mandate it, I’ll leave,” the associate said. “Right now, I just don’t comply.”