When people work at law firms, they usually need to attend various social events and trainings in addition to the time they spend billing hours for clients. Although some of these supplemental events are voluntary, in many instances, attendance at such extracurricular events may be implicitly or explicitly mandatory. To add insult to injury, law firms sometimes require employees to attend mandatory events on nights and weekends when employees might otherwise have off. Nevertheless, law firms should try to hold mandatory work events during work hours as much as possible so employers can maintain work-life balance and not interfere with the personal time of employees.
Before I started my own practice, I worked at various law firms who approached mandatory social events and trainings a little differently. I had an employer that required all of their associates to attend a retreat once a year. The retreat was a fun time to catch up with colleagues and bond outside of the office, and although it was mandatory, people usually looked forward to it.
This employer held the work retreat during the week on business days. As a result, most of the people who did not need to travel too far to attend the retreat could travel to the retreat during the work week and travel home after the retreat with minimal impact on their social life. In addition, the firm scheduled the retreats to end on a Friday, so people could extend their stay in the city where the retreat occurred, which was an added bonus that other associates and myself took advantage of.
However, I also worked at a firm that required associates to attend a retreat every two years, and the retreat mostly occurred over the weekend. Of course, there are a few reasons why law firms would want to organize retreats over the weekend. A firm can take a huge billing hit if all of the associates are unable to log hours for a day or two. In addition, law firms can suffer interruptions if their associates or large swaths of their employees are unavailable during the work week. However, the benefits to an employer should not take precedence over associates being able to enjoy their weekends in peace, and law firms should try not to schedule trainings, retreats, and the like over the weekend when it is possible to schedule the events during the week.
On a smaller scale, law firms also disrupt the personal time of employees when they require attorneys to attend some social events and trainings during evenings over the week. Mandatory holiday parties, so long as they only occur once a year might be OK, since this is an established tradition of many law firms and other employers, and an annual event is not a huge imposition on employees, even if the event occurs after hours. However, some firms have events after hours on a more regular basis that invades the personal time of employees and makes it harder for them to enjoy their free time.
For instance, it is common for law firms to have semi-mandatory happy hours that all members of a team or an office are asked to attend. If such events are truly voluntary, then it is more appropriate for such events to be scheduled for after hours. However, it may be problematic for law firms to schedule such events for after work hours since employees should not be required to sacrifice their personal time so that law firms can realize the benefits of mandatory social events.
Rather than schedule social events for after hours, law firms should try more to schedule events during the course of a workday. For instance, if a law firm wants members of a team or an office to come together in a social setting, there is no reason why the firm cannot arrange to hold a breakfast or a lunch with staff. Such events can occur during work hours so employees will not need to sacrifice their personal time for the benefit of a firm. In addition, such events have many of the benefits of social events that occur after hours since people can just as easily bond over breakfast or lunch as they can over dinner or another after-hours event. Furthermore, trainings that are scheduled after hours can just as easily be held during work hours so that employees can get all of the instruction of the trainings without needed to sacrifice their personal time and invade the work-life balance.
Of course, much of this analysis applies to the pre- and post-COVID world since law firms are much less able to schedule social events and trainings due to the pandemic. However, hopefully, the work-from-home experience will make law firms more cognizant of preserving work-life balance in the future. And law firms can help preserve this balance by holding as many trainings and social events as possible during work hours in the future.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.