Besides the pandemic itself, perhaps no topic has dominated recent conversation among white-collar professionals like working from home. The upsides. The downsides. How long it will last. Whether the nature of work has changed forever. Everyone has an opinion and a preference.
For most of 2020 and early 2021, the remote work debate didn’t have much immediate practical implication. Like it or not, Biglaw attorneys were mainly working from home. But now that offices are reopening, lawyers face a choice: either accept whatever new policy their firm is adopting or look to move to a firm that better aligns with their preferences.
Varied expectations for office presence
By now firms have generally re-opened their U.S. offices, with summer attendance guidelines ranging from voluntary at firms like Ropes & Gray to “strongly encouraged” at firms like Sullivan & Cromwell. As for the fall, firms have articulated varying expectations. Paul Hastings has said it expects all attorneys to work from the office as a “default” policy. Several firms have specified a minimum number of office days each week: Skadden’s expectation of at least three days per week is typical. Nixon Peabody is offering a range of configurations, including 100% remote arrangements for some lawyers.
Many firms have presented their guidelines as applying from September through the end of 2021, avoiding longer-term commitments. That makes sense in an environment where firms understand the tight market for talent will require them to offer flexibility but it remains to be seen how much.
So where does that leave the typical associate? For those who prefer to work from the office, there isn’t much to worry about. Few firms are going to discourage a lawyer who wants to spend every weekday in the office from doing so. But for those who have enjoyed working from home and are not eager to resume office life, it’s a tougher call. You can sit tight and hope that market pressures will ultimately force your firm to permit frequent, if not total, remote work. Or you can try to lateral now to a firm that is committed to offering officially remote roles.
For those considering such a move, we at Lateral Link think it’s important to separate fact from myth when it comes to remote positions in Biglaw. We’re hearing from many associates who are keen to maximize flexibility but are not well-informed about the state of the market.
Myth: Many Biglaw firms are offering remote positions
In fact, most firms are not offering fully remote roles. There is a lot of misinformation on this point, driven in part by recruiters incorrectly telling candidates that a firm is open to remote work when the reality is different. You should understand that firms offering fully remote positions are outliers, at least for now.
Myth: Openness to remote work is the same across major markets
Law firms tend to be influenced by the cultural norms of their client base, so it’s not surprising that a split on remote work is emerging between east and west. In New York, most of the banks that serve as anchor Biglaw clients are calling their staff back to the office this summer, and most New York firms want their lawyers largely back in the office in September. In contrast, the tech companies that drive the Bay Area economy are taking a more favorable view of long-term remote work, and at least some Bay Area law firms are following their clients’ lead.
Myth: You can work remotely for a law firm located in another country
Hiring employees in a given state or country has tax implications for the employer. And in the case of transnational work, there may also be work authorization restrictions to consider. Even within the United States, remote roles are often limited to particular states where the employer has made provision to operate. So no, if you are a lawyer living in the United States, you very likely cannot work remotely for a firm outside the United States. And similarly, remote roles for American firms paid through American payroll are limited to United States residents with the legal authorization to work in the United States.
Lateral Link can help lawyers navigate the evolving market
It remains to be seen what the typical Biglaw workweek will look like a year from now. Based on what most firms are saying today, it will probably involve some days in the office and some days at home. That likely means that moving far from a major city will, for many lawyers, continue to require the tradeoff of leaving Biglaw practice.
However, we expect that policies will continue to evolve as firms survey the competitive landscape and (re)position themselves accordingly. In such a fluid situation, it’s especially important to have an advisor who is in constant contact with a range of firms and can give you accurate information about how the market is trending. If you are thinking about switching to a firm that better matches your remote work preferences, Lateral Link is happy to discuss the options with you.