Associates want to return to the office — with warnings

Notice to law firm executives: fabulous news. Those young associates floating around your office (or on Zoom) aren’t quite the delicate snowflakes you thought they were.

Despite all the talk that they’ll never, ever go back to work full-time in the office – a survey conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of Bloomberg News reveals that 49% of millennials and gen Z would quit their work if remote work is not allowed – some young people do not automatically denigrate it.

“I think it would be a stabilization to be in the office,” says a recent Columbia Law School graduate who joined a Magic Circle firm in the fall. “My sophomore summer was completely gone so it would be cool to meet real people.”

Even young lawyers who are adamantly opposed to returning to the office full time could do so under the right circumstances. A third-year litigation partner at a Washington, DC-based firm, who initially said he would resign “if they forced us to come back full-time,” softened when presented with the opportunity – a fantasy, really – to cap your workweek at 50. hours. “The ability to stop working at some point – and not feel guilty – is essential,” he says.

The popular perception is that young lawyers want to lounge in sweatpants all day and work wherever they want, whether it’s the beach, their parents’ basement, or a treehouse. But what they really want is something both prosaic and elusive: a work / life balance and an affirmation of their humanity.

The life of a lawyer has never been warm and fuzzy, but the past year has been downright brutal and the pressure never abates. According to Last update To Bloomberg Law Lawyer Workload and Hours Survey, the plight of lawyers continued into the second quarter of this year. The report reveals that “respondents say they suffer from burnout more often and almost half report a decline in their well-being.” In addition, compared to the previous quarter, “the percentage of respondents with a job satisfaction score of 7 or more drops to 44%”.

So now that some partners are pressuring people to return to the office, are companies tackling these lingering issues of burnout, both physical and mental?

The answer is no. Despite all the talk about mental health, the Kumbaya Zoom rallies spurred by the pandemic and the social justice movement, and the assortment of corporate wellness seminars, associates say companies are ignoring at best at which point they are at the end of their strings.

They will also tell you that partners just don’t get it. “Money is the reason people get into Big Law, and partners think we should be more interested in becoming a partner and making more money,” says the litigation associate. “It seems doable to them, so they think they can tempt us by paying us more. I don’t think they are feeling the attrition that we are seeing. He adds that salary increases and Covid bonuses are not helping. “We are already paid so much, but more money will not solve my problems. It’s actually worse because it puts more pressure on people to work harder.

Obviously, the money Big Law threw at young lawyers to ease their pain just doesn’t do the trick. “They might give me tens of thousands of dollars, but there’s not much you can do with it if you’re working all the time,” says a 2018 law school graduate who left two large firms during the pandemic. (She says her second job at Big Law was even worse than the first: “I had more sleepless nights in the five months I was in my second firm than every two years I spent in my first firm. “) Now working in a startup, she says” At one point, [money] is meaningless. It gets to the point where my sanity is worth more. “

Some young lawyers say they would trade not only their freedom but their pay for less pressure. “I could probably live on $ 150,000,” admits another junior associate who works for a New York firm. pm weekdays and no weekends! ”

Such a simple request, but who are we kidding? Between giving young lawyers regular hours but making them report full time to the office or making them work to death but allowing them to do it where they want, is there any doubt about the option that Big Law would choose?

The dirty little secret is that companies have made a ton of money this year pushing lawyers to the brink – and remote working has helped make it happen. “We believe associates work harder from home than they ever could in the office because they are truly available 24/7 and don’t have commuting, business entertainment or of social life, ”says a New York-based business partner. “So bringing them back to the office will reduce the bills. “

If there is no business reason to call the troops back to the office, why are some partners insisting? I have the impression, after speaking with associates and partners, that many do not take the order seriously. “Over the past year, we’ve already proven that we can work hard,” says the litigation partner. “I don’t know anyone except maybe a few partners and this guy from Morgan Stanley pushing him.” He adds that associates work at the mercy of individual associates, and firm guidelines will likely be ignored.

The young lawyers I’ve spoken to have little illusion – let alone hope – that Big Law will evolve into a kinder, gentler place. While the back-to-office debate touches on questions of individual autonomy, the truth is, Big Law doesn’t give anyone much control.

“Customers are used to instant service,” says a former corporate partner who left a New York firm known for its international practice due to “crazy and crazy” schedules. Now working remotely from Austin with a startup, he says: “It’s hard [to have reasonable hours] because the clients want it right away, ”referring to the demanding private equity clients he used to serve. “Businesses have to defend themselves when customers set unrealistic deadlines. “

Companies that stand up to customers? What does he smoke in the country of Texas Hill?

In the meantime, some young lawyers are ready to return to the office, even if they would like to do so on their terms. What no one wants is to be turned away. “I hate the way Corporate America tries to get everyone back to the office,” says an Atlanta-based partner whose firm has so far been vague about its work policy. If the cabinet insisted, as she fears, “it would give the impression that the partners are not leaving us space to be human,” she said.

But there are a few who are eager to return to the cabinet, but perhaps not for the noble reasons advocates of traditional speaking time hope.

“I’m just sick of my apartment,” said the third-year New York litigator. “I live in a studio and my ‘workspace’ is about 18 inches from my bed and sometimes I just work in my bed and barely get up. The only change of scenery I have is going to the bathroom.

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