I recently had a conversation with a Collab member about how the legal system normalizes things that really aren’t normal about office culture in Biglaw.
This likely isn’t new to you, but there are some things that we just can’t talk about enough. In this article, I want to talk about working from home and the impact of the pandemic on law firm office culture.
The issue of law firm office culture and the resistance towards working from home by some firms is one of those things. Keep reading to learn more about the effect
Why Large Law Firms Are So Resistant To Working From Home:
Let me start by saying that not every large law firm is this way, in terms of being resistant to working from home. Many law firms in the last two years, if not before, have adapted to working from home. But it feels like the firms that are pushing their people to go back hardest are doubling down on the things that make the least sense.
One of the reasons that large law firms are pushing so hard for associates to come back is because of law firm office culture, or so they say. I’m not going to make the argument that there is no such thing as office culture or that it doesn’t matter.
However, I think the thing that we need to keep in mind with most law firms, is that it tends to correlate with places where the office culture is terrible. It’s not a coincidence that places that tend to have bad office cultures are also the ones who are pushing people to come back into the office the hardest.
The Proof Of A Toxic System
I want to share a quote from an article in the Wall Street Journal about COVID’s effects on intense law firm office culture. The quote I’m about to read is from one of the partners at one of these large law firms. Here it is:
“Even if they hate us, they should be in our presence as much as they can so that they can learn.” This guy is talking about associates in this quote. I just thought this perfectly exemplified so many of the things that are so toxic with the way that most large law firms are structured.
In other words, it doesn’t really matter if associates hate the partners because the partners are doing them a favor by providing their great wisdom and knowledge.
I’m not saying that you don’t learn things from people who are more senior to you, but the fact that any person would make this particular statement when they knew that it was going to be published in a national publication is mind-blowing to me.
Why Lawyers Are Apprehensive To Go Back To The Office
Part of the problem with pushing associates to come back is because of law firm office culture is that it’s much better to do everything together in the office. But, at the same time, some senior lawyers and partners admit to having a bad office culture, and the only reason you should be back in the office is to soak up all the wisdom that you need.
But the response is that in many cases, we’re actually being more productive at home. Yes, it’s important to make connections, and there are a lot of politics and schmoozing involved in terms of getting opportunities.
Plus, the vast majority of law firms insisting on having their associates come back to office don’t have good office culture, and the benefits of the partners in the law firm are misrepresented. There are various reasons for this mismatch, but we won’t get into that now.
I just think this is yet another reminder that the way that the legal profession is structured. The things that are considered normative are irrational, like the fact that you could give a quote like the one we talked about to a nationally renowned publication. You shouldn’t have to put up with people you hate simply for their wisdom.
The Double Standards Behind It All
This is one of the biggest problems that I see with many of the things that law firms expect from their associates in particular. Law firms expect associates to behave and prioritize things in a completely irrational way.
Partners and senior lawyers are essentially hired for their ability to make rational decisions. To then turn around as the firm and say they don’t understand why you’re not accepting the completely irrational logic is a complete double standard.
But it’s quite illuminating. It’s like, “Well, that’s who you hired. They are smarter than that.” That’s why I think for these things to change, you’re going to have a much more significant shift than most large law firms have truly reckoned with.
Those are my thoughts today about work from home, the shift in law firm office culture in large law firms, and all of those things. I would love to hear from you if you are in a large firm where there is this idea of like, “Well, we need to be in person because of the law firm’s office culture.”
Do you agree? Do you disagree? Do you have another idea? You can always write to me at [email protected]
And, if you’re looking to make a move out of your position at your large law firm, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law.
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Get In Touch With Sarah
Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. On this show, I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let's get right to the show.
Hello everyone. I'm not going to lie. Today's episode is going to be a little bit ranty. Get excited. I want to talk today about this ongoing conversation that has started to happen about working from home and the impact of the pandemic, specifically with respect to law firms. This also intersects with a conversation about office culture. To be clear, I don't think I'm going to say anything incredibly new that you haven't heard other people say before but I still think it's important to talk about because I was just having a conversation today with some of my clients in the Collab who are going through the guided track right now. One of the things that we were talking about is how the legal profession normalizes things that really aren't normal about office culture and about the way that we view work, and the way that we view ourselves with respect to work. I just think that frankly, there are some things that we can't talk about enough. This issue of office culture and particularly the resistance to work from home by some firms is one of those things.
I want to start out by saying not every law firm is this way in terms of the approach to working from home. There are many law firms, even large law firms that in the last two years, 2020 and 2021, if not before, have/had adapted to the way that modern life works, which means that you are often able to complete the work that you need to do from many different locations, not always in the office. I do want to start out by recognizing that and saying that this is not necessarily something that is characteristic of every single law firm, however, it is still characteristic of many of them. It almost feels like the law firms that are pushing their people to go back to work in person the hardest are doubling down on the things that make the least sense. I'm sure you've all seen various memes being shared on social media about some of the quotes we've seen in various articles that have been written about law firms, asking their people to come back to work in person. One of the reasons that they should come back that's being touted is office culture. I've seen various memes with things like Darth Vader crushing someone's windpipe and basically saying, “Oh yes, the office culture, it's so wonderful.” Obviously, I’m not the only one who gives a little bit of a side eye to the, “But we're so concerned about the quality of our office culture being worse when people aren't here in person.”
Office culture. Let's talk about that. I think that I am not one to necessarily think that it makes sense to go to either extreme. I'm not going to make the argument that there is no such thing as office culture or that it doesn't matter, however, I think the thing that we need to keep in mind with most law firms, particularly the ones who are pushing their people back to work often on timelines that aren't reasonable, is that tends to correlate with places where the office culture is trash. It's interesting. I don't even know what the word is, illuminating perhaps that places that tend to have a reputation as having particularly bad office cultures are also the ones who are pushing people to come back into the office the hardest. I have had conversations with people who have various theories about why this is, including the ability to manage and micromanage. Really micromanaging is more difficult for some at a distance but I'm not going to delve too far into that. I want to, though, read you this quote that I saw in one of the articles about this whole phenomenon.
This article is all about essentially, whether and to what extent COVID is going to have an effect on Biglaw firms’ intense office culture. One of the quotes in there from one of the partners at one of these large law firms that was interviewed—I think it may even be a recently retired partner—was the following. I'm just going to read it to you. This is the quote: “Even if they hate us, they should be in our presence as much as they can so that they can learn.” This guy is talking about associates in this quote. When he says they, he's talking about associates. I just thought this quote just so perfectly exemplified so many of the things that are so toxic and wrong with the way that most large law firms are structured. It's this idea of like, “Well, it doesn't really matter if they hate us because essentially, we still have things to impart to them. Essentially, we're doing them a favor by providing our great wisdom and knowledge.”
Listen, I'm not saying that you don't learn things from people who are more senior to you. I think that if you take the position that there's nothing you have to learn from people with more experience than you, that's a very unwise position to take. But the fact that any person would make this particular statement when they knew that it was going to be published in a national publication, it's mind-blowing to me. It isn't that it isn’t right because it's also a little bit like, “Well yes, what do you expect?” I think that part of the problem with this argument that is being made about, “Well, you need to come back in person because of office culture,” is that at the same time, you have senior lawyers pretty much giving a nod to the reality that, “In fact, the office culture is not that great. Really you should just be here because being around me is going to impart all of the wisdom that you need to know.”
It's like this endless cycle to nowhere like, “Oh well, you need to be back in person because of office culture. Actually, you might hate us, which suggests the office culture is trash but you should really want to be here because it's what's good for you. It's what's going to help you learn.” Then the rejoinder is like, “Okay well, but people are doing their work. In many cases, they're actually more productive.” You can start talking about like, “Oh, but making partner and connections, essentially, the politics of having to schmooze with the right people and blah-blah,” which of course has its own set of problems that we've talked about before in terms of structural issues within law firms and within the legal profession in terms of who gets those opportunities, and whatnot.
I think you see the vast majority of law firm associates looking at these statements that are being made. First of all, the culture is not good. Second of all, the benefits that I might get from being somewhere in person 100% of the time are often wildly diminished from what they're represented to be, or if not wildly diminished, just non-existent. There are various reasons for this mismatch. I'm not going to go into all of those here today, but I just think that it's yet another reminder that the way that the legal profession, in particular large law firms, are structured, the things that are considered normative, the fact that you could give a quote to a national publication that says like, “Essentially, I acknowledge that there's a decent chance that the people who work for me hate me but that shouldn't matter to them. Why would it matter that you're having to work with someone you hate? You should still want to be near them,” that's irrational.
This is one of the biggest problems that I see with many of the things that law firms expect from their associates in particular. They expect them to behave and to value things in a way that is completely irrational. These people are employing or are being employed for essentially their ability to be rational, to make rational decisions and rational choices. To then turn around as the firm and say, “Well, we just don't understand why you're not accepting the completely irrational logic that we are employing here” is like, “Well, that's who you hired. They are smarter than that.” That's why I think in order for these things to change, you're going to have a much more significant shift than most of Biglaw has truly reckoned with.
Those are my thoughts today about work from home, the shift in work and office culture in Biglaw firms, and all of those things. I would definitely love to hear from you if you are in a firm where there is this idea of like, “Well, we need to be in person because of the office culture.” Do you agree? Do you disagree? Do you share my views? Do you have another idea? You can always write to me at [email protected] I hope you have a great week.
Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.
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