It’s no secret. The legal industry has long lagged behind the broader business world on most fronts. The world of remote working has been no exception. Yes, the basic tech is functionally available for most law firm attorneys. We mostly all have laptops and the ability to remote in and bill from our living rooms. But most large law firms still lack a real culture of remote working as a professional lifestyle.
Physical proximity is still the unspoken assumption of law firm life. In most firms, working regularly from home is an oddity to be commented on rather than a reflection of our digital 21st century reality. And that’s just on the attorney side of things. Even with the minor inroads remote working has made with lawyers, it remains virtually nonexistent as an option for professional staff. Having a legal administrative assistant working remotely would strike many attorneys as utterly preposterous. Isn’t physical presence part of the basic concept of the job?
The arguments against a remote working culture are timeworn. Remote teams can’t collaborate together as well. Workers at home get distracted by chores, naps, or Netflix. It’s unprofessional to take calls with clients or courts when kids or pets might be making noise in the background. You can’t pop your head in the office to ask a question or see how the day is going when someone is working out of their house.
The biggest argument by far, though, is the damage that remote working will do to a firm’s culture. So much of the special sauce that makes a good team is composed of those unplanned, serendipitous moments by the water cooler. Without proximity — and the chances to spontaneously gel that proximity brings — the fear is that we’ll lose our firms’ greater sense of unity and possibility.
The Cult Of Culture
I’ve got a complicated relationship with the idea of firm culture. On the one hand, it’s an essential element to maintaining and growing a firm. Without that central identity, it’s hard to attract and retain talent. Few folks out there just want to walk into an office, close the door, and bill. Most of us want to belong to something bigger, to have friends and colleagues with whom we’re proud to practice. There will usually be some other firm out there ready to overpay to attract lateral talent. When those firms come knocking with big checks in hand, a strong, positive culture can help fend off the headhunters.
But culture is both a sword and a shield. “It’ll damage the firm culture” gets thrown out almost any time I hear a proposal for some innovation in how we work. In these situations, culture is code for “we’ve always done things one way, so let’s never consider doing them in a way that might be better.” It’s an easy trump card to lay down, a cheap excuse to change nothing and continue to fall behind the times.
The culture argument has long been a dominant voice in the conversation around teleworking. It’s already easy for law firm attorneys to silo off ourselves or our practice groups and lose touch with our colleagues. Sometimes it can feel like physical presence is most of what keeps a firm together. The daily ritual of congregating at an office, saying hello to the admins in our impressive lobbies, stepping into mahogany-lined conference rooms for meetings … it all creates a sense of oneness that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Without the building where we work side-by-side every day, what actually unites us as a common entity with common goals? What else, besides our office, makes us a firm?
Because of COVID-19, we’re starting to learn how wrongheaded that thinking actually is.
Law In The Time Of Corona
COVID-19 continues to be a global tragedy of historic importance. By the time this is published, over 60,000 Americans will have died of the virus, out of over 225,000 worldwide deaths. The scope and human impact of this disease are hard to overstate, which is why the resilience of the people fighting it has been so remarkable.
Most people reading this column are likely working primarily from home. The legal industry has shifted from professional buildings to bedrooms and home offices. Instead of dropping by for a chat, we’re emailing, scanning, Zooming, Housepartying, FaceTiming, using every means at our disposal to stay connected with our colleagues, friends, and families. Not only do we seem to be maintaining our relationships and culture, we seem to be growing them in a positive direction.
Being stuck at home has made us more intentional about our communication with one another. The pop-ins and water cooler chats have been replaced by in-depth conversations and GIF threads on Slack. We’re all struggling, and all coming to one another’s rescue.
COVID-19 is forcing all of us to finally accept that working from home can and should be normal. Even the naysayers have been forced to try it themselves, and to make it work. They’re getting the chance to experience the well-documented benefits of teleworking for themselves. There have for sure been hiccups and headaches with the transition to remote working. I certainly owe our IT team a round of drinks once the quarantine is lifted. But I truly believe that despite losing that physical closeness, our firm culture is stronger than ever during this time.
Physical closeness is never going to go away. My firm isn’t canceling its building lease any time soon. Even firms deeply committed to teleworking like Fisher Broyles or Keystone continue to conduct at least some of their meetings in meet-space, either in pay-per-hour professional conference rooms or designated office spaces. But we’re finally being forced to use some of the tools that have long been at our disposal, and it’s making our industry richer.
A law firm isn’t a building. It’s not a collection of attorneys or practice groups. It’s not a letterhead or a recruiting class or a PPP metric. A law firm is a choice. It’s the decision people make to band together and form something greater than the sum of their parts. In the shadow of COVID-19 we’re now choosing to make that decision a little more consciously every day. In the process, I think we’re also choosing to make ourselves better people.
James Goodnow is an attorney, commentator, and Above the Law columnist. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and is the managing partner of NLJ 250 firm Fennemore Craig. He is the co-author of Motivating Millennials, which hit number one on Amazon in the business management new release category. As a practitioner, he and his colleagues created a tech-based plaintiffs’ practice and business model. You can connect with James on Twitter (@JamesGoodnow) or by emailing him at James@JamesGoodnow.com.
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