Why these BigLaw firms aren’t mandating in-office work

23 May 2022 By Lauren Croft
work from home

As we enter a post-pandemic environment and workplaces start to usher employees back, BigLaw firms are offering a number of perks to their legal staff.

With hybrid working now the norm within firms, Lawyers Weekly spoke to three major BigLaw firms about whether they’re mandating in-office time and how they’re working practices have changed throughout the pandemic.

MinterEllison chief talent officer Alissa Anderson said that technology and communication connectivity now allow a choice of workplace, ensuring safety, security and reliability.

We have no plan to mandate; we know that no one size fits all. Partners and teams make decisions on where to work, based on what is best for clients, the team and them personally  when to be in the office, at court, working at client premises, at home, best times and days, etc. Teams are best to decide what is optimal for clients and their teams while living to our purpose and values,” she said.

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“We see the positive outcomes from our approach to the way we work in attracting new people to the firm. Our people are back in the office welcoming new starters, integrating them into their teams, developing learning plans, and building out our purpose and culture with them.”

Similarly, Clayton Utz has a flexible working policy – and is not mandating staff coming back into the office full-time, according to director of diversity and inclusion Alison Woolsey.

“We’re confident that our people understand the benefits of spending time in the office while also taking advantage of flexible work arrangements. That’s largely what we’re seeing. We’re also seeing more people returning to the office (in all locations), many having missed that ability to connect – and particularly for our younger lawyers, the opportunities for professional development and profile that come from those face-to-face interactions with their teams,” she said.

“We have a flexible work policy (supported by Riet O’Brien, our dedicated flexibility manager) that outlines the flexible work options available to people and how to go about requesting a flexible work arrangement. We’re encouraging team-based flexibility discussions, so that an individual’s preferred work arrangements fit with the needs of the team, and the business.” 

Ms O’Brien added that the firm “saw through the lockdowns during the height of the pandemic that successful remote working was possible.

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“We know that it works and that people consider it the norm now. We’ll continue to encourage a mix of remote working and in-the-office attendance though as we know how important those face-to-face connections are to creating the sort of work culture in which people thrive,” he said.

For Mills Oakley, the firm is continuing to explore newer ways of flexible working as they move forward, said chief executive John Nerurker.

“Flexible work has become more flexible at Mills Oakley. We’ve dropped some of the formal requirements for entering WFH work arrangements in favour of a system that allows each team to have an open dialogue about finding ways of working that suit them and our clients. The bottom line is that people’s needs are not static and what works for one person won’t work for another and modern workplace policy needs to adapt accordingly. Our focus is on ensuring that our people feel supported in their flexible work arrangements, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ policy,” he said.

“We have always said that some level of face-to-face contact is important to enable people to benefit from the social aspects of work such as mentoring, knowledge-sharing, team interaction and growing internal networks: the office has to be the real clubhouse of culture. There is a role for core times where everyone comes together, but we haven’t made a ‘top down’ directive – it’s up to our teams to devise the arrangements that work best for them, the individual team members and our clients.”

In addition, Mills Oakley has found that the more flexible its working environment, the longer staff stay at the firm and the happier its employees are.

“We find that staff with flexible work arrangements have higher job satisfaction and stay with our firm longer. The availability of flexible arrangements is also a very common question posed by candidates during the interview process,” Mr Nerurker added.

“So, the days of firms mandating 100 per cent office attendance are behind us. If firms want high office attendance, the way forward is to create stimulating, enjoyable work spaces that people feel motivated to attend. Firms can’t mandate the commute; they have to earn it.”

In terms of creating an environment staff want to attend, Ms Woolsey said that Clayton Utz is doing a number of things to draw staff back into the office.

“In addition to encouraging office attendance through social events, we’ve found that celebrating our many diversity and inclusion initiatives has been a great opportunity to bring people together and back into the office,” she said.

“Next week we’ll be celebrating the launch of our industry-first toolkit, developed for our AWEI Platinum Project, which is aimed at maximising engagement and a sense of inclusion for LGBTIQ employees in a hybrid work environment.”

Ms Anderson added: “People are reacquainting themselves with the benefits of being in the office and meeting in person with clients. Friday night drinks are back, teams are taking advantage of ‘reconnect activities’, and in-person learning has recommenced. BOT week was hugely popular with lots of ideation and innovation and a buzz in the offices." 

“Clients welcome our reconnect activities. Partners and teams are meeting clients in their office as well – enjoying planning, collaborating, knowledge sharing and advising. These meetups are benefiting everyone – clients and our teams. Teams are finding their new work rhythms, incorporating the choice of workspaces focused on what is best for clients and the team. We view new ways of working as an evolution, not a revolution," she concluded. 

Why these BigLaw firms aren’t mandating in-office work
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