Home comforts - will more flexible working options make for more productive lawyers?

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Morgan Lewis & Bockius recently became one of the latest large law firms to offer flexible work options, when it announced a new policy allowing US and UK associates with two or more years‘ experience to spend one to two days a week working remotely.

Since the plan was officially unveiled on 7 March, about 100 Morgan Lewis associates have signed up for the initiative, according to firm chair Jami Wintz McKeon. The programme, which launches on 1 May, includes an in-home office setup with dual monitors, a headset and docking station.

In the business world, flexible working arrangements have become increasingly common. A recent study by Deloitte found that nearly two thirds of millennials said their employers have adopted some sort of flexible work arrangement. But in recent years the trend has picked up steam in Big Law, as a way for some firms to attract and retain new talent, particularly the ever-elusive millennial hire.

Baker McKenzie also recently announced its own programme, known as bAgile, which offers different types of work arrangements, including remote working and alternative hours for all of its employees – not just lawyers – across its North America offices.

“[Flexibility] is the wave of the future, and more and more firms are going to have to adapt to this because it’s actually becoming a deciding factor for some associates,” said Ru Bhatt, a managing director in the associate practice group at legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa (MLA).

If I’m going to be sitting at a desk all day and just turning out documents, I save a lot of time by working from home

Millennial associates have spent the majority of their lives working from behind a screen, preferring to communicate via text message or email rather than with a phone, Bhatt said. To them, having the flexibility and technology to work from home or outside the office is becoming all the more important in choosing a new job.

“A firm that has a facetime policy, where you have to be in the office all the time, isn’t usually as desirable as a firm that understands that you can do your work [elsewhere],” Bhatt said.

A generational study by PwC found that if given the opportunity, 64% of millennials would occasionally want the opportunity to work from home. And in another survey by PwC, flexible working hours ranked second after personal learning and development as a desired benefit from employers. Cash bonuses came in third.

These flexible working arrangements supported greater productivity and employee engagement while enhancing millennials’ personal wellbeing, health and happiness, according to the survey by Deloitte.

“A long time ago there was a prejudice against people working from home, with the thought that they’re unable to get the same quality of work done there, as opposed to if it was in the office,” Bhatt said. “But more and more associates are realising…if I’m going to be sitting at a desk all day and I’m just turning out documents, I actually save a lot of time by just working from home because I don’t have to come into the office.”

So what do employers get for giving millennials this flexibility? Loyalty.

In organisations that offer highly flexible work environments, 35% of millennials saw themselves leaving within two years and 33% of that same cohort anticipated staying beyond five years, according to the Deloitte study. The latter number is in stark contrast with organisations that offer the least amount of flexibility: 45%of millennials saw themselves departing in two years and only 27% saw themselves there beyond five years.

With yearly attrition rates at close to 17%, according to a report by the National Association for Law Placement, law firms could benefit from being a little more flexible.

“We’re in a battle for the best talent in the world and the more flexibility that we exhibit allows us to attract and retain that talent,” said Greg Nitzkowski, a managing partner at Paul Hastings in Los Angeles.

For years, Paul Hastings has had an informal flexible work policy, allowing associates and other lawyers to coordinate with their practice groups to work remotely. The firm has invested in technology to make working remotely fairly painless for its lawyers. Each lawyer has a desktop where they can collaborate on documents, as well as a mandatory videophone among other offerings.

We found that associates working remotely were more engaged with the firm and more engaged with our clients

The programme is part of a long-term effort by Paul Hastings to create an “office of the future”, where at least 10% of the firm’s lawyers do not have permanent offices, Nitzkowski said. In order to accomplish this, “You have to have technology that allows you to work as if you are right down the hall from someone,” added Nitzkowski.

It’s the availability of this kind of technology that Nitzkowski claims has dispelled traditional notions of the ineffectiveness and lack of productivity that can come with working remotely.

“We can ask ourselves if client service is really affected anymore and we can ask ourselves whether to the extent that that problem exists,” he said. “[But] technology has really overwhelmed that argument.”

This is what Morgan Lewis found prior to implementing its own policy. The firm conducted beta testing in Los Angeles, tracking the hours recorded by participants, as well as pro bono hours and time spent by lawyers doing other things such as client development and recruiting.

“We wanted to make sure that associates that participated in the programme remained engaged,” said Amanda Smith, an associate talent and pro bono partner at Morgan Lewis in New York. “We saw no drop-offs in any of those metrics over the course of the data [and] perhaps counterintuitively, we found that associates that were working remotely actually were more engaged with the firm and more engaged with our clients.”

Jami_WIntz_McKeonTo McKeon (pictured right), the decision to implement a flexible workplace policy after studying such metrics was a no-brainer.

“It doesn’t change how much time you’re spending working, [but] it gives you flexibility in your work day,” she said. “And if you can do that while maintaining a high level of client service, why would you not?”

Allowing for workplace flexibility can also have other positive impacts for firms outside of eliminating certain inefficiencies. In April 2016, Shearman & Sterling was another Am Law 100 firm to officially institute a flexible work policy. White & Case’s London office and several other firms in the city did the same in May 2016, with magic circle firms Clifford Chance and Slaughter and May adopting ‘agile working’ programmes the following month.

Shearman’s initiative allows associates and counsel in its five locations in the Americas to work outside the office up to two days each month, depending on their practice’s needs. These lawyers work with their practice group leaders to arrange days that they will work remotely, and Shearman has offered to install at-home printers for interest participants.

“It’s about us really wanting to be an employer of choice and, while making sure that above all we are delivering to clients’ needs day in and day out, to give the flexibility where we can to individuals to manage their work and their life,” said Shearman chief HR officer Marcus McGregor Franks.

In the nearly one-year period that the firm’s policy has been in place, almost a third of Shearman’s 300 associates and counsel in North America have requested the installation of a printer, although Franks believes there are many more lawyers taking advantage of the flexibility than that number indicates.

Perhaps the most important impact of the policy at Shearman has been a significant boost in the firm’s morale. In 2015, the firm ranked 98th on The American Lawyer’s mid-level associate survey, with an average job satisfaction score of 3.678. Just one year later, the firm saw its ranking rise to 21st, with an average job satisfaction score of 4.355.

“Our rating went up quite considerably,” Franks said. “We believe that was in part due to the launch of the initiative.”

Such policies, of course, do have some red flags. For all their perks, MLA’s Bhatt offers a word of caution. While the option to work remotely may be enticing, taking advantage of such programmes could potentially be harmful to an associate’s advancement at a firm. Associates need to look at their firm’s culture and determine whether or not working remotely might be detrimental to their career.

However, the firms that responded to requests for comment on this story indicated that their policies, formal or informal, would not hinder an associate’s chances at partnership. Morgan Lewis’s McKeon said her firm’s work-from-home initiative is a signal to associates that they have the support of firm leadership to take advantage of the programme.