Working from home — what a life-saving concept. Telecommuting has become popular in many industries since the advent of technology that makes presence in the office less necessary and the high costs of brick and mortar offices less desirable. The cost of physical space for offices has become prohibitive in large cities in the US, and reducing the need for all of that physical space is very appealing to business managers.
We all know people who telecommute, and most of them are happy to have the option of working at home as an alternative to getting in a car to fight the morning and afternoon rush traffic every day. This kind of flexibility is especially appealing to women lawyers, who often have to work around children’s school schedules and other family issues. It is a part of the total flexibility picture for them, which also consists of flex time, generous parental leave and reduced hours. However, until recently, there has not been much movement on the issues of flexibility in the law profession.
Tradition is often the mantra in law firms, and working from home is hardly traditional. However, as pointed out in a recent article, big law firms were starting to experiment more with flexible schedules prior to the economic downturn in 2008. However, according to Joan Williams of UC Hastings College of Law and director of the Center for WorkLife Law there, once the recession hit employers no longer felt the pressure to offer flexibility. Presumably, law firm managers had more pressing matters on their minds like trying to keep the doors open for business.
So, last week’s announcement by Morgan Lewis of a new policy allowing associates with at least two years experience at the firm to work from home up to two days a week was huge. The concept, which was tested out in the firm’s LA office, turned out to be well received by everyone. The concerns that working from home would negatively affect availability to clients and productivity were not experienced and opposite results were demonstrated.
Morgan Lewis is not the only firm that has been experimenting with flexibility for its attorneys in recent years. Examples of modified parental leave policies, alternative work schedules and job sharing by other big law firms are also cited in the article. Although the approaches at law firms differ, one thing seems to be consistent — the realization that the law labor market is tightening and law firms need to be competitive to attract the best talent. In the case of Morgan Lewis, the work from home program comes with a full hardware set up in attorneys’ home offices, including dual monitors, docking stations and headsets. It is expensive for the law firm, but, as noted by one partner, “We’re trying to put our money where our mouth is.” Another senior lawyer described the program as “a reflection of the trust between the associates and the firm.”
Bravo for these forward-thinking law firms! I hope examples of this kind of flexibility and recognition of “the trust factor” in retaining talent will start popping up all across the industry.
If your firm does not have a program like this, maybe it should. And maybe you are the one to make the case for it. Time spent in traffic five days a week is not time well spent.
Speaking of time, it is about time that law firm managers and leaders start understanding that improving the cultures of law firms benefits everyone. Morgan Lewis is demonstrating that in a big way.