Ed. note: Please welcome José Ancer to the pages of Above the Law, where he’ll offer thoughts on the realities of remote work and the differences between boutique and Biglaw firms.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed something that a lot of the more progressive lawyers and law firms have known for a very long time: as it relates to legal services, there is nothing universally advantageous about traditional offices. Many elite lawyers are just as productive, or more productive, working from their home offices or from co-working spaces closer to where they want to live. Having a “distributed team” is also a hell of a lot cheaper.
Of course, that doesn’t mean “remote work” is for everyone. Nothing is for everyone. I can tell you, as someone who’s been building high-functioning remote legal teams for years, working from Colorado with a gorgeous mountain view from my home, there are specific kinds of personalities that are built for it. We’ve even found law students and junior associates who thrive in a remote environment, given the right conditions.
The one common trait that we seem to have found at Optimal, where our lawyers are located all over the country without a single central office, is that the types of lawyers who really enjoy remote work also tend to be the types who avoided study groups in law school. “Loner” is too strong of a word; I prefer “self-contained.”
We’re the types of people who already have our own friend groups, perhaps even families, and just aren’t looking to our work environment for a big social scene. It doesn’t mean you won’t find us cracking jokes and posting memes in a casual Slack channel, or even having lunch or drinks with a colleague, but there is a much stronger sense among remote lawyers generally that work is for working, not socializing, and as for actual socializing, thanks, but I prefer my own actual friends and family.
So a meaningful number of high-performing lawyers are heavily interested in not working from a traditional office. Surely in a competitive market economy, elite Am Law 100 law firms looking for scarce talent will be rational and give those lawyers plenty of leeway to work the way they want to, right? Oh, if life were so simple.
There is one big reason why any lawyer looking to build their career outside of a traditional office will always be “second-class” in an elite law firm that has traditional offices, no matter what that firm says.
Think about the entire work culture of any Biglaw firm playing the “profits per partner” tournament that we all know so well. Virtually every meaningful facet of that culture is designed to identify the lawyers who accept their job being the first, second, and third priority in their life. These are, from the perspective of Biglaw, the real players.
Work-life balance? Want to attend your kid’s ballgames? Go on a vacation more than once a year (if that) and not work? Have control of your weekends? Sure, in 2023 the smarter firms will have some kind of track for you. But don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re going to get those things and be a real player. That’s just not how the system works. Again, from the cold calculus of the PPP system, the real players don’t ask for these things.
“Return to office” is no different from this. The mere request from a law firm that their lawyers come back to the office is a test; a sorting function if you will. Like all the other ways the firm tests your allegiance, they know that the real players will do what the firm says. Again, sure, maybe they’ll leave open some “flexible” track if they can’t get enough of the talent they need fully in the office, but step onto that track, and you are now marked as second-class.
If a law firm or company has traditional central offices, the “room where it happens” (so to speak) will be in one of those offices. Fact. That’s just how office politics works. This doesn’t preclude those organizations from offering remote work tracks, but the people on those tracks know that they are dramatically lowering their chances of climbing the hierarchy.
For a lot of lawyers who really want to work remotely, this “deal” of more flexibility but lower status is perfectly OK. They accept being B-class as the price to pay for having a better personal life.
But what about ambitious lawyers who don’t accept this? There is nothing inherently incompatible with preferring to work on your own terms but also wanting to build a substantial book of business and eventually make partner. To these lawyers, our entire roster at Optimal being among them, I say: Your only choice is a fully remote law firm.
It is only in a fully distributed legal team that being yourself a remote lawyer does not make you second-class. That “room where it happens” is a Zoom room or a Slack channel. The work cultures and status hierarchies of fully remote firms function completely differently from traditional law firms, including so-called “hybrid” firms, because there is no group of people sitting in one location schmoozing with each other and playing water-cooler politics to monopolize key opportunities.
As young lawyers build their careers and sort out their lives, they need to ask themselves some hard questions about what they really want, and what they’re willing to do to get it. Everything has a price. We already know the personal price of being an Am Law 100 partner. That price is not going to change any time soon. It takes enormous sacrifices by design. It’s a sorting function.
For those ambitious lawyers who are realizing that working from somewhere other than a handful of mega-cities, or having significant autonomy over their daily schedule, is not just a nice amenity but a foundational priority, understanding the “price” that office politics forces on remote workers is key. You can choose to pay that price in a “classic” law firm and accept lower status. Many lawyers are doing this, and good for them.
But combining ambition and the work-life flexibility of distributed teams requires building completely new institutions. In the world of elite venture-backed tech startups, my practice area, having extremely high-functioning, ambitious, and very well-compensated fully remote teams is not some new thing. You find these teams all over the place.
But for legal, the ecosystem of elite fully remote law firms is just getting started. The technology is there. The model is proven. The clients are ready and willing to try something new. I’m not talking the past decade’s “cloud law firms” made up of nothing but semi-retired types who never collaborate and won’t even think about hiring associates. These new firms are full law firms, with law school pipelines, training infrastructure, associate teams and staff, and everything needed to collaborate on projects and deals. Just without a central office.
We’re not under any illusion that we’re going to “disrupt” Biglaw or remake the Am Law 100. To us, it’s really about offering the market’s top lawyers more options for their careers beyond Biglaw, in-house, or get out of law.
With a better variety of career options on the table, we’re confident that elite lawyers can and will sort themselves out.
José Ancer is a Partner and Chief Technology Officer at Optimal Counsel LLP, an elite, tech-enabled boutique law firm serving venture-backed startups and growth-stage companies for corporate & securities and M&A law. He frequently writes on his Startup and VC Law blog, Silicon Hills Lawyer, which is followed internationally by entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, lawyers, and law schools. Follow him on Twitter @ancerj.