Redesigning The Future Of Work In Big Law

Most of our client firms have announced plans to institute some version of a hybrid system in September (or October, or November…) The big question now is, is this a transition policy or is it permanent systemic change? 

Assuming all child care and support structures are back in place, we believe institutionalizing a hybrid system offers a rare opportunity to begin to level the playing field for all lawyers. But, it will not be easy. When working in a hybrid system gets hard, frustrating, and confusing (and it will), there will be pressure to go back to the old system. The strongest pressure may come from senior leaders who are more comfortable with the old system because it worked well for them. 

Like most things, what may make the difference between success and failure of a new system is preparation. Here are some things to think about as you prepare for the fall:

1) Accept that it will be hard and do not be surprised. When the pandemic hit, everyone moved in one direction: home. As we re-enter, people will be coming and going from different directions at different times. This is much more complex. We cannot assume that what worked in the in the old system or during the height of the pandemic will work now.

2) Trust your colleagues. If we have learned anything this year, it is that we can work remotely and be very productive. Assume good intent.

3) Establish the right mindset (this needs to come from the top.) There should be no shame for people taking advantage of the flexible option. At the same time, if there are legitimate reasons for extra in-office time, all lawyers need to remain flexible to accommodate those requests.  

4) Improve all lines of communication: partners and associates. People only know what you tell them. If there is an information gap, people fill the gap with their own stories. 

– Communicate about the schedules of every team member – be transparent (no shame.) People need psychological safety. Transparency is key.

– Re-establish primary business hours such as 9:00 to 6:00 (as if in-office), understanding this is a 24/7 business.

– Agree on a plan to be in contact on off-hours: email, text, IMs, phone.

– Communicate clear expectations for responsiveness. For example, when you send an email during off-hours (e.g. 10 pm) when do you expect a response?

5) Optimize days in office. 

– If you are able to choose, decide what work is best done in the office and what work is best done at home.

– Be sure to see team members when in the office.

– Walk the halls to check-in with others.

– Organize regular practice group/team meetings that everyone attends in person.

– Assume days in office may be less productive because there will be lost time while connecting.

6) Optimize days at home. 

– If you have not done so already, fully equip your home office. 

– Remember, concentration is the currency of productivity.

– Plan your days.

– Minimize external distractions by chunking your shallow and deep work.

– Minimize internal distraction by practicing mindfulness.

– Schedule remote check-ins.

7) Expect the unexpected. With a more complex system there will be more variables that can change at the last minute.

8) Pay attention to power dynamics. Proactively minimize the inevitable shift in power dynamics resulting from who is in the office and who is not. If you are a manager of other people, use your position to model neutral behavior toward in-person and remote workers.

Redesigning and implementing a more humane and innovative work system will be hard and frustrating at times. When it feels particularly hard, remember how hard and frustrating the old system was and look for what you can proactively do to make it easier. Everyone will be co-creating the new system. Everyone can be a leader.

Take some time before you go back to a hybrid system to think about how the new system will work best for you, your family and your team. Use the points outlined above to create a plan. Communicate your plan to everyone who would benefit from knowing – at work and at home.

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