'Market Pressure' And Office Mandates Aren't Going To Work Long-Term

Some Biglaw firms think the job market gives them leverage to mandate in-office work. The data says they're very wrong.

lateral move Businessman jumps over the ravineThe most dangerous place in America is between a microphone and a Biglaw firm trying to mandate attorneys back to the office. Firms may not be reaching out directly, but there’s no shortage of consultants and background sources willing to tell certain outlets how law firms have “leverage” again and how firms are ready to ditch lawyers who aren’t eager to come back. No one is confused about the source of this “conventional wisdom.”

Yet… most firms aren’t embracing this wisdom. “You didn’t see your kids before the pandemic, you shouldn’t expect to see them now” might be the message at Skadden and Davis Polk may be “predominantly an in-office firm,” the truth is the rush to force lawyers back to the office is notably absent. Biglaw firms normally can’t play lemming fast enough. When one firm sets the bonus market, the rest of the field generally follows suit within weeks. It’s too risky and the talent pool too sparse to play non-conformist.

And a lot of firms just aren’t convinced that the “leverage” is really out there.

They might be right. A recent Microsoft study concluded that, “While a less certain job market may motivate some employees to spend more time in the office, a more lasting, effective approach requires concerted efforts to rebuild social capital.” In other words, firms will be sorely mistaken if they’re hoping attorneys are so scared of getting laid off that they’ll swallow in-office mandates.

Where these firms keep getting it wrong is assuming that lawyers never want to go to the office. Very few attorneys expect to work from home all the time, nor do they want to. It’s not the fact of going to the office that they balk at, it’s arbitrarily forcing them to show up on a set day regardless of whether there’s any need for them to be in the office that day or not.

They just want flexibility.

And if the firm wants to manage flexibility, it needs to focus on culture and technology instead of blustering about everyone being at their desks every Thursday.


That same Microsoft survey revealed that what actually brings motivated employees back to the office is providing some reason for them to be there. According to respondents, 74 percent of employees are motivated to go into the office if they know their “work friends” are there. While a mandate might bring everyone under one roof — a fitting way to talk about the crushing overhead of firms’ reckless commercial leasing — a more effective method would be to enable those groups come together naturally.

We’ve raved about Seward & Kissel’s efforts to make office days fun — and building mini-golf holes seems like fun — but it’s not about the single day that the firm holds a big event, it’s about the connections that event builds that carry over.

And firms haven’t even really begun to utilize the tools out there to build an office community. Some 60 percent of firms have adopted no new technology to support hybrid work and the most popular “hybrid office” tool cited in a recent ILTA survey was… Microsoft Outlook? And even that was a mere 13 percent.

That’s a work tool that works everywhere, not a hybrid work tool!

The Maptician 2023 Attorney Engagement Survey found that “presence technology” more than doubles attorney time spent in the office as measured by utilization. If you’ve never heard of presence technology, it’s one of the rare instances where the buzzy tech term is actually self-explanatory. It’s tech designed to inform everyone who is in the office that day, where they are, and for how long. People show up when they need to be in the office and if they don’t need to be in the office… they might show up if they know their mid-level mentor buddy is there.


And with flexibility, firms can take advantage of hoteling office space or arranging the area with shared space that only gets shared in emergencies. Firms can cut back on space while still keeping the office “full” with a significant chunk of employees on any given day. Davis Polk is doubling down and leasing another 30K sq. ft. as part of their mandates and, I dunno, I hope that makes whatever commercial real estate client they’re working with happy. But law firm space utilization overall sits just below 50%, rendering $74,475,561.6 in real estate per month unused according to Maptician respondents.

The market might be down right now, but it’s not going to be stuck in neutral forever. Attorneys are already circulating resumes. The other top-tier firms steering clear of the mandate approach are going to have ripe pickings from talent itching to bill 2800/year, merely asking that they bill Tuesdays from the home office. That’s a small concession to make to get ahead in a talent war.

Earlier: Biglaw Lawyers Must Return To The Office To Justify Management’s Reckless Office Space Leases
Davis Polk Is ‘Predominantly An In-Office Firm’ Now, As It Clings To Mandatory 4-Day Attendance Plan
Managing The Hybrid Office Of The Future With A Couple Clicks
‘You Didn’t See Your Kids Before The Pandemic, You Shouldn’t Expect To See Them Now,’ Says Elite Law Firm Partner
Seward & Kissel Designs World’s Longest Miniature Golf Hole

HeadshotJoe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.

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