This article originally ran in The Legal Intelligencer on November 22, 2017.
Think about this: waking up and “getting ready” for work by just taking a few steps to your home office or kitchen, opening up your laptop, and beginning and ending your workday all without ever leaving your home. This thought may be relatively new to some, but for many others it may be the ideal work situation. When I worked at my first law firm in Center City over 15 years ago, work-from-home policies rarely existed. Law firms, which are terrified of change, certainly never had them. But times have changed.
Employers have been inundated with data and research in recent years about millennials and their takeover as the largest generation in the current workforce. Millennials want, and expect, more from their employers than prior generations. Say goodbye to the days of employees loyally working for a company for 20 or 30 years and welcome the era of jumping ship when employee needs are not met. Old-school requirements of face time, and the need to laboriously work from dusk to dawn in the office are outdated and are not sustainable. This is true not only for millennials, but for most of our workforce including GenX and GenZ (an entrepreneurial generation with even higher demands). Law firms afraid to acknowledge this change should know that the average worker who has the ability to work from home is not only more engaged but is often more productive! Further, new technology is being developed almost daily, making work from home easier, more efficient and seamless. These policy changes benefit law firms and lawyers alike. Law firms can use flexible policies to attract greater talent that are drawn to a more livable work schedule, while saving money by lowering overhead and other administrative costs.
When we founded Griesing Law almost eight years ago, we did so with the mission of creating a law firm that was not only diverse and inclusive, but where all employees could reach their full potential both professionally and personally. Having strict face-time requirements would never have allowed us, or our employees, the flexibility to balance careers with personal goals. All law firms need to understand that it’s not just boutique firms’ potential employees who expect this, but all-sized firms. Radha Kachalia, direct hire legal consultant for Beacon Hill Staffing Group, said that she “recently had a large global law firm in D.C. reach out in search of a high-level business development professional with a very unique skill set. The firm was having a hard time finding such person in its specific market. When the firm offered the possibility of a flexible/agile working option (the ability to work remotely X days/week if needed), we found the perfect person for the role.”
As a member of the Association of Legal Administrators, I was able to poll law firms, both locally and nationally, to find out what law firms are doing, if anything, in minimizing face-time requirements. Of the 25 or so law firms that responded, a little less than half allowed attorneys to work from home. This was usually only if a child was sick or to care for a sick family member. Most preferred, if not required, attorneys to be in and work from the office every day. Another firm allows partners the flexibility to work from home but require associates to be in the office so that they are readily available to the partners. The other half that responded had more understanding and flexibility for the personal needs of their employees. One firm has a policy where if an attorney meets his or her billable requirements in a single month, they can work remotely one day a week. This work from home day is rescinded if they miss their billable requirements the following month. While only some firms had written remote working policies, very few said they actually encourage their attorneys to take advantage of the policy. As we have all experienced, a policy that is not internally supported is the functional equivalent of having no policy at all. To make your policy work, it is important that your attorneys understand that they will not be penalized for taking a day or two each week to work remotely.
While firms both locally and nationally who responded stated that longtime and seasoned partners are less likely to understand the need, many firms are trying to attract and retain top talent. Locally, several firms are starting to, or have already begun, adopting policies to change the way their firms perceive the mobile worker. According to Gail Ruopp, executive director of Panitch Schwarze Belisario & Nadel, a 25-lawyer intellectual property boutique firm in Pennsylvania, their firm is moving to a new space in 2018. “Our associate attorneys will share offices. This provides our attorneys the flexibility to work from home, and allows the firm to have less brick and mortar in Philadelphia.” This approach is similar to the one that my firm will undertake when we relocate in mid-2018. Both Ruopp and I know that we will be entering the next phase of what a law firm office looks like. With that, Ruopp went on to state that “we are researching best practices and would be willing to share our collective experience in this new arrangement.”
I also spoke with Robyn Henry, director of administration of Conrad O’Brien, a 30-lawyer law firm that considers itself the “the insider’s law firm—winning bet-the-company cases for AmLaw 100 firms and Fortune 500 companies, as well as high-stakes cases for government entities and individuals.” Henry said that her firm “wanted to create a more flexible and accommodating workplace for everyone at the firm so the firm policy allows attorneys to work from home twice a week. At the same time, we require that clients do not feel the difference as to whether you are remote or not. So, everyone has to be readily available, easy to reach and very responsive or the program won’t work. We do ask that people wait until they are with the Firm for one year before doing this as we don’t want it to change our ‘open door’ culture of everyone knowing each other and office collegiality, etc. However, we have several people who really prefer to be in the office so they don’t work from home as much as they could. We also allow exempt support staff to work from home twice a month but no more than one exempt staff member may work from home per day.”
It seems that law firms in general are slower to allow support staff, such as paralegals, take advantage of these opportunities although several of the firms who responded to my inquiry have some type of policy in place. Many have the same concern of ensuring compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act for the nonexempt workers. As employers, whether the work is performed in the office or at home, we are required to compensate employees appropriately. Luckily, there are technologies that can assist us. For example, time clock software that nonexempt staff use to clock in and out each day while in the office, also have mobile apps so workers can do clock in outside of the office on a work device or a personal device as the case may be. This allows employers to keep track of every minute and hour spent working on their behalf whether that just be nine to five from home or nine to five, and the again from eight to nine at night if they must respond to a partner’s urgent request. Although having certain non-exempt staff work remotely can be more complicated, it should still be explored.
Greg Cruikshank, wrote an article in October 2017 for Forbes called “Benefits of a Lenient Work-From-Home Policy” which outlines just some of the many benefits employers get when they have work from home policies in place. While employers can often be left wondering if a work from home employee just watches TV or runs errands all day on your dime, it is usually quite the opposite. Employees wake up and they are “at work” already. In addition, as Cruikshank points out, in the office many employees are often sidetracked by water cooler gossip and the continuity of people stopping in your office throughout the day interrupting work flow.
However, that is not to say that law firms can be equipped to handle remote working capabilities at no cost. Consideration should be given to making sure your technology is up to date on items such as having enough remote terminal licenses so that your networks can be accessed, ensuring hardware that leaves the office is properly protected with encryption and other anti-virus software. For firms with workers that live in other states, you will also need to make sure that you have the appropriate workers compensation insurance in place.
Maybe your firm has a good reason for an antiquated no-working-from home policy, but more likely than not, it does not. Our work face is not changing—it has changed—and whether we like it or not, law firms must change too. In practicality, the barriers to entry are small. The first step to embracing a mobile workforce is having a written work-from-home policy. Putting expectations in writing lets employees know that you are serious about this culture change. Just as important, however, it helps outline the firm’s expectations for employees who take advantage of the policy. Working from home is not for everyone, there will be employees who do not perform as well or who take advantage of the flexibility. Having a policy in writing ensures compliance to this benefit – because it is a privilege and therefore it can be taken away. Make sure employees understand the policy and that you still expect their work to be done, and that they remain available and communicative – with partners and clients.
Let me leave you with this: in February 2017 Forbes published “9 Millennials Share What Work-Life Balance Means To Them.” Those featured in the article talked about “work-life integration,” which to them meant “building a lifestyle and a career that I’d be happy to maintain for the rest of my life,” and “working from my laptop in the mountains of Colombia … or skiing in upstate New York. Sure, I work a lot of nights and weekends, but ultimately, it’s because I choose to. And that flexibility makes my career sustainable in a way that I can adapt when new lifestyle priorities arise.” It is an interesting read because much of what was said is what any worker would want, regardless of their generation.
Jessica L. Mazzeo is chief operating officer of Griesing Law, where she focuses on overseeing and implementing all of the firm’s business operations while establishing policies that promote and retain the firm’s culture and strategic vision. In addition to her role at the firm, Mazzeo is on the board of directors of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrations and is a volunteer for the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms and the Women’s Business Enterprise Council of PA-DE-sNJ. Contact her at 215-732-3922 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission from the November 22, 2017 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2017 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.