Did the Pandemic Change Law Firms? Could Anything?

Debra Pickett

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Though it might come as a surprise to any midlevel associate working through the weekend for the third time in a row, law firm culture is reputedly at a moment of “peak empathy.” Certainly the pandemic, combined with shifting generational and cultural norms, has driven firms to make some once-unthinkable changes to the way legal work gets done. Are innovations like remote offices and hybrid schedules here to stay? Or will firm leaders inevitably regress to the profession’s traditional churn-and-burn style of management?

In March 2020, law firms, like virtually every other business, went into crisis mode. In some ways, they’ve yet to emerge.

From community lockdowns in the early days of the pandemic through the racial reckoning triggered by the murder of George Floyd to the challenge to the rule of law raised by the assault on the U.S. Capitol, many of the fundamental organizing principles of law firm life have been overturned. And yet corporate firms — those serving large businesses and wealthy individuals — have thrived. The firms of the AmLaw 100 and 200 are growing and profitable.

Some of this success can be directly attributed to changes driven by crisis response: lower travel and entertainment costs, for example, have surely improved profit margins.

Less easily quantifiable changes seem to have had broadly positive effects as well. Preliminary studies show that firms making “empathetic” changes to their cultures — such as promoting remote work and flexible schedules, prioritizing employees’ mental health and investing in DEI — have been more successful at retaining employees through the “great resignation” and are today seeing better productivity than firms that held to more rigid expectations around attendance and performance.

Given those results, it seems counterintuitive to pine for a return to the “old days” of long, in-person hours and a stiff-upper-lip approach to social stressors and mental-health challenges. Why would any rational firm leader want to return to a way of working that was both bad for people and bad for business?

In fact, though, much of the legal industry seems to expect a reversion to the mean (pun very much intended) because even if these new kinder, gentler expectations and norms are producing positive results, they are making some “old school” partners uncomfortable.

Has Big Law Hit Peak Empathy?” asked one buzzworthy piece in American Lawyer this summer. “Do Associates Have an Entitlement Problem?” asked another, noting

“A Law.com International survey of 50 partners found 76% of respondents believe junior associates are more entitled than they were three years ago, with 58% of respondents noticing a “negative change” in the attitude of associates they work with over the same time period. Partners said this change has manifested itself into associates raising issues on topics including: pay, workload, burnout and required office attendance.”

This generational push-pull — with older partners holding power but younger associates outnumbering, outworking and, ultimately, outlasting them — is shaping the future of the profession. As crisis gives way to new normal, firm leaders must ask, “What aspects of working differently served us well? And how do we preserve them?” while also reflecting on how to manage the real concerns of their rainmakers and senior partners.

Here are five key areas of change that have impacted legal work and culture over the last several years — and how firm leaders can embrace them.

  1. Client deliverables/expectations — At the start of the pandemic, as firms deluged their clients with webinars and white papers, general counsel pushed back. What they really wanted was for their lawyers to call them and talk them through the very pragmatic concerns they had about their supply chains and workforces. Status addiction drives law firms to focus on creating content and resources that look and feel a certain way (expensive! worth it!), but clients routinely say they want the opposite: communication that feels personal and specific, with a spirit of “get in the trenches with me and help me solve this problem.” As BTI research confirms, clients will choose “sensible, realistic, appropriate and immediately helpful” over “artfully designed and Hollywood-produced” every time.

  2. Remote work/physical space — Mandating full-time, in-person work is a losing proposition. Attorneys, most of whom have managed to work very productively and with better work-life balance from home, simply are not going to return to their offices five days a week. Managing partners need to accept this new reality and find better ways to achieve the highest and best use of their resources, both humans and real estate. Aligning physical space to how it’s actually used — such as by assigning the best and largest offices to the people who actually spend the most time in them — is the smartest path forward.

  3. Empathy/culture — Ultimately, the dynamics of the labor force (specifically Gen Z law students) are going to force law firms to become more empathetic workplaces. Much of the partner pushback against extended leave and flexible hours and other family- and wellness-focused programs comes from deep pain around the idea that their own personal sacrifices might not have been necessary. First-generation firms and younger firm leaders are showing the way here: People-first policies will attract talent, build loyalty and boost productivity.

  4. New expectations around social responsibility. Once studiously neutral on every possible issue, law firms are participating in civic life and social movements in new ways, even turning down business and firing clients who contradict their firm values. The legal community’s near-universal stated support for the Black Lives Matter movement and a long-overdue racial reckoning marks a sea change for the profession. From here on out, law firms are expected to participate in civic conversations and represent the rule of law. Leaders need plans and processes for communicating — and living — their values.

  5. Everything has become more casual and transparent. Those shocking first views into colleagues’ homes during Zoom meetings early in the pandemic have had a profound effect on working relationships with clients and within firms. We’ve seen each other’s pets and kids — and pajamas. We’ve been honest about our caregiving responsibilities and health concerns. We’re not going to go back to pretending that neckties are comfortable or that 5:30 meetings are convenient. Leaders should continue to model honesty and transparency about their own situations, and strive to build cultures where people can bring their whole selves to work without fearing a motherhood penalty or other forms of discrimination.

Every minute law leaders spend trying to turn back the clock to 2019 is a minute wasted. “Empathetic” policies create a more sustainable culture and better business outcomes. Embrace them or be left in the dust.