I just read an article saying that a large percentage of young lawyers — 44% — would quit rather than come into the office.
Let me be provocative here and say that a law firm that has too much WFH has a very high likelihood of extinction.
And let me also be provocative and say that a young lawyer who goes too much for the WFH angle has a very high likelihood of career extinction or at least job loss at the next downturn.
Let me explain.
A lawyer I just interviewed told me essentially that there was no reason to go into the office at his firm since no one was there, so if you go in, you are all alone. He works from home, as does almost everyone. It is just no fun, and there is really no law firm at all. Just a bunch of people logging in. That is why he is interviewing with me — because he wants a place to go where he has friends and human interaction.
Building on this, let’s get back to basics. What is a law firm? It is a collection of lawyers who are together because they want to be together. If they stop wanting to be together, then they leave, and the law firm ends. As a partner of mine told me years ago when I was managing partner: “Bruce,” he said, “all of the assets of this company go down the elevator every night. Your job is to make sure they come back in the morning.”
Well, if everyone works from home, it sounds like all the assets aren’t coming back in the morning, are they? They are home — perhaps working hard — but there is no connection to the firm. If they get a better offer, all they have to do is change their email address, and they now work for another law firm.
At my firm, I am proud to say — and, indeed, the whole point of the firm — is that we are together. We are having fun with each other. We all have friends here. We are a team. We are in the office partly to do work, and partly so we can all add value to each other. Professional value, emotional value, inspirational value, value when we are down to get picked up, value to have the thrill of teaching and being taught, and every other kind of value. Yes, we have bad days of stress, but overall it is fun to be in our office with our friends.
The other law firm I mentioned — which is much bigger than our firm — where that fellow is working, in my view is the walking dead. They may not know it yet but they are.
Turning now to employees — especially younger employees — you went to law school for a reason. To be a lawyer. Being a lawyer admittedly starts out by typing a lot of words on a page. And that you can do from anywhere, but there is a lot more to being a lawyer than that. It is about building relationships with clients and colleagues.
I could go on and on about this, but I guarantee you that you won’t be building that career sitting at home. Instead, at home, to your bosses, you are a fungible billing unit. What a horrible phrase, but that is what you are. You aren’t present in the office and part of the team showing your humanity and building value for yourself and others.
Admittedly, I am overstating things a bit. There are exceptions, such as working at home temporarily — for personal reasons, such as taking care of a relative. Or for health reasons. Or just because you have to power down now and then.
A policy allowing people to work from home one — or maybe two — days a week, makes perfect sense and is all to the good. In this vein, WFH can be kind of like a guilty pleasure — like secretly eating ice cream for lunch now and then. But if you go too far, no one will enjoy eating ice cream three meals a day, five days a week.
So here is my message to both employer and employee: If you are the employer — the partners — you need to make sure your office is one that people want to go to. Or they won’t go in, and as I said, it is game over, sooner or later. It is your critical job just like my partner told me years ago to make the firm a place where people want to be, or sooner or later they won’t be there.
And if you are the employee — the associates — you need to go into the office and make your career happen.
To conclude, some WFH is a great thing to spice things up. But if you go too far toward WFH as a law firm, then the law firm’s days are numbered. And if you go too far toward WFH as an employee, you will likely be the first to be cut from the team when things turn down.
All of this seems obvious to me — but that article I mentioned at the start — made me wonder if others are living in Fantasyland.
Bruce Stachenfeld is the chairman of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP, an approximately 50-lawyer law firm based in midtown Manhattan. The firm is known as “The Pure Play in Real Estate Law” because all of its practice areas are focused around real estate. With almost 50 full-time real estate lawyers, the firm is one of the largest real estate law practices in New York City. You can contact Bruce by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bruce also writes The Real Estate Philosopher™, which contains applications of Bruce’s eclectic, insightful, and outside-the-box thinking to the real estate world. If you would like to read previous articles or subscribe, please click here.