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Will Australian law firms mandate office time?

After emerging from the pandemic — and with a potential recession on the horizon — a number of industries are implementing office mandates. But how sustainable is this for law firms?

user iconLauren Croft 21 June 2023 Big Law
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Late last year, a number of legal recruiters confirmed that firms not offering flexibility would become “second- and third-tier choices” for candidates — particularly in a tight legal market with mid-level lawyers and senior associates in high demand.

However, multiple partners have previously expressed concerns regarding missed mentoring and learning opportunities in the face of flexible working — and in May last year, UK firm Stephenson Harwood told its staff they could work from home permanently — provided they take a 20 per cent pay cut.

Subsequently — and post-pandemic — office mandates have now been seen across a number of large Australian organisations.


In May, Commonwealth Bank announced that its staff would be mandated back to their offices for at least 50 per cent of their working time, in a move set to take effect mid-July. This came after NAB chief executive Ross McEwan told senior staff they were required to come into the office five days a week.

And in an interview with the Economic Times in early May this year, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna also warned his 260,000 staff that remote working could be “hazardous” to their careers.

These directives were unsurprising to Major, Lindsey & Africa Sydney managing director Ricardo Paredes — who said flexibility still remains a key issue for candidates in the legal market.

The senior management of many of these large organisations have been voicing their concerns regarding remote working for some time. I think that no matter the size of the organisation, especially in large ones like banks and accounting firms, physically working together alongside colleagues does, in fact, foster stronger communication and collaboration, which in turn should lead to a more motivated and productive workforce.

“There is a flip side, though. Whilst I am not surprised they are seeking this, I wonder about the reaction of staff, given what we have all become used to over the last few years. [Flexibility] remains highly attractive but more so for mid and senior associates than junior lawyers,” he told Lawyers Weekly.

“I think junior lawyers (for the most part) understand that being in the office only plays to their benefit in regard to training and career development opportunities. Whilst more senior lawyers who can work autonomously, place a lot more value in retaining the ability to work from home whenever they can. I have noticed this in Australia, but this is also something my colleagues in Asia, the US and the UK have noted as well.”

Rigid office mandates are “unlikely to work” within law firms, however; something Unispace chief innovation and design officer Simon Pole said related back to the “complex hierarchy of needs” and the fact that many firms are measured by output rather than physical presence.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly last year, he said that flexibility actually makes a lot of sense for law firms — and lawyers working around their client’s time.

“For an industry that employs one of the best and most accurate measures of productivity (the chargeable unit), approaching staff from a position of trust makes a lot of sense. Since firms are measured by output rather than presence, a flexible policy that truly reflects the trust a firm puts in their people is likely to be a success,” he said.

“So, if leadership can think beyond the expected days people ‘should’ be in the office and focus more on how each role supports others within the firm and engages with clients, that’s a good first step. It’s about creating a flexible mindset that recognises the shifting needs of the client and firm, as well as its established culture and hierarchies.”

Particularly post-pandemic, businesses need to be evolving and adapting to new and modern ways of working — as, according to FAL Lawyers, “lawyers like choice” and “don’t want to be told how to work”.

“If work has been carried out effectively under a remote set-up, I don’t see why this needs to change. Businesses should be built on trust, and this extends to employees and trusting that they are working as effectively from home as they would [in] the office. While, of course, many of us have missed face-to-face interactions with colleagues and understand that being in the office can provide a structured work environment, we still want the flexibility of both options,” a spokesperson said

“Each organisation will need to weigh the benefits and drawbacks based on their specific circumstances and needs, considering the evolving nature of work and the lessons learned from the pandemic. Though it should be noted that for some sectors such as finance and accounting, there are also considerations around the handling of sensitive and confidential information which may limit the options of remote work.”

Are law firms mandating office days?

Lawyers Weekly contacted a number of BigLaw firms to explore whether office mandates within the financial sector would spread to the legal profession — or if they already had.

Mills Oakley confirmed that its position had not changed since speaking to Lawyers Weekly in May last year, when the firm emphasised that “people’s needs are not static” and modern workplace policy needs to be adaptable. Similarly, Dentons stated it would not be mandating in-office days as of yet.

Gadens is also not mandating in-office work, with different policies in place across the country.

“One of the significant incentives we currently offer is our flexible working model, where, in our Melbourne and Sydney offices, our people have complete flexibility over the way they work, and there is no requirement to spend any fixed amount of time in the office. They can work when they want and from where they want,” a spokesperson said.

“We also offer our people the most extensive parental leave and return policies in the Australian legal market. In our Brisbane and Adelaide offices, we take a ‘fit-for-purpose’ approach which results in providing a range of flexible options for our people.”

Lander & Rogers has kept its “100 per cent hybrid working policy” in place, with no mandated days or number of days in the office for most staff.

“Our offices remain well-attended, with most people at all levels choosing to work in the office two or more days a week for social connection and team building. This has proven particularly valuable for graduates, younger lawyers and those newer to the firm, who value in-person learning from more senior lawyers and spending time face to face with colleagues while still enjoying the benefits of hybrid working,” chief executive partner Genevieve Collins said.

“In a 2023 firm-wide engagement survey, 93 per cent of respondents said they felt they have the flexibility they need to manage work and caring responsibilities and other commitments. This reflects the importance of empowering our people to structure their work in the way that best suits their needs and responsibilities.”

Similarly, Hamilton Locke managing partner Nick Humphrey said that after running a firm-wide survey earlier this year, the firm was able to balance in-person collaboration and flexibility.

“We understand that flexibility and flexible work arrangements are important to our people. The model we have developed strikes a balance between our people’s development and workplace flexibility. To support this, we do not mandate anchor days or dictate a minimum number of office days. We want to strike the right balance between providing a flexible work environment, where people have autonomy over how they work and team cohesion that comes with in-person interactions. Whilst a downfall for many, flexibility and remote working is our key strength,” he explained.

“With our approach to flexible working, we understand that leaders need to be more mindful and deliberate about communication, checking in and team interactions. We believe that flexible working is not a one-size-fits-all approach and that coordination across teams is essential. Teams should decide what is best for the team within that framework. Essentially, the model we have come up with is a ‘No Rules’ rules approach — we trust our people to work collaboratively, independently and flexibly.”

At Herbert Smith Freehills, staff spend, on average, 60 per cent of their week in the office.

“Our approach to flexible working is about carefully balancing the needs of our clients, our teams and our people. The amount of time spent in the office is tailored accordingly,” an HSF spokesperson said.

A KWM spokesperson couldn’t confirm whether the firm was mandating specific in-office days or not as of yet, but did say that KWM will continue to place importance on flexibility.

“We’ve been consulting on our ways of working guidelines and will be shortly communicating an updated message about when our people are expected to be in the office. We’ve learnt a lot about hybrid work and flexibility over the past three years. It’s important we don’t just default to the way things were pre-the pandemic,” they said.

“We are committed to enabling our people to make the most of the benefits of working from the office and from home — with the right balance between the two to best meet client, team and individual needs.”

Piper Alderman also did not confirm whether it was mandating office hours or not — only that the firm aspires to have “a culture of collegiality, innovation and collaboration”.

“We believe that these are best achieved in an in-office environment. However, remote working can create high levels of productivity with benefits to partners and employees,” managing partner Tony Britten-Jones said.

“We encourage direct conversations between team members and their leader to design solutions that work for the individual, the team and our clients.”

Conversely, Corrs Chambers Westgarth is asking staff to return to the office 60 per cent of the week.

“We have asked our employees to attend the office at least three days a week. Teams have the flexibility to decide amongst themselves which particular days they want to come in and work together in person,” a spokesperson from the firm said.

Flexibility still key moving forward

FAL Lawyers has previously allowed staff to work from home as often or as little as they want — a model — said the firm has found to be very successful.

“We can’t turn back time and just go back to how we used to operate. Our team are motivated, engaged, and productive, and at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. To us, it’s about offering everyone choice. In recent months, we have found more and more of our team coming into the office regularly, particularly since we moved to our new office space. But, we also have team members who, since the pandemic, have chosen to move further out of the city or to another state, and they are fully remote,” FAL Lawyers said.

“Offering our team the flexibility to work remotely has allowed individuals to be more proactive in taking charge of their work. We understand that everyone has different circumstances, and a hybrid approach allows them to find a balance of how they work. We have also found that with the remote-working approach, we feel more connected to our team in Canberra as we are now all accustomed to meeting remotely; the lines have been blurred between the Melbourne and Canberra team.

“On the other hand, following a hybrid approach, we found we were often missing each other; you could go weeks without seeing someone in person simply because your ‘office days’ didn’t line up. So, we introduced a designated ‘office day’ once a month to help bring us all together on a regular basis.”

This may not be the norm in smaller firms, however. In fact, Mr Paredes argued the opposite.

“If you look around the market, the vast majority of smaller-sized law firms have had their lawyers and staff back in the office on a full-time basis for the last six or 12 months, and you don’t really hear the people at these firms complaining about it. It’s the bigger firms who continue to provide working-from-home arrangements, with the vast majority allowing their lawyers and staff to work from home twice a week,” he said.

“Gradually, I wonder if Australian law firms may look to mandate four days in the office, just like many of the firms in the US have begun to do. However, I believe that those firms who continue to provide some type of work-from-home offering will benefit in attracting a larger pool of candidates to work for them compared to the firms who mandate five days a week in the office.

“It’s just about getting the balance right. That said, as the market tightens, I suspect it is inevitable that firms will look more closely at those lawyers who are less than fully utilised. If the axe needs to fall, it is easier to let it fall on those with whom you don’t have a close, personal relationship. Camaraderie is built by being in the trenches together, so I would caution lawyers against letting themselves become too distant from the mothership, as it were.”

Despite this, firms that do not offer flexibility will struggle to remain competitive moving forward, particularly within bigger cities and bigger firms.

“In order to attract top talent, firms need to consider what they can offer to employees beyond a good salary. From recent recruitment interviews, it’s clear to us that employees are much more focused on the culture and additional benefits which a firm provides than they were five [to] 10 years ago. The option to work remotely is now expected,” FAL Lawyers said.

“Flexibility is increasingly important to the modern law firm cohort. The legal industry has traditionally been known for its rigid work structures and long hours, but in recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the benefits of flexibility in the legal profession. Firms that don’t move with the times and recognise the new ways of working will likely suffer higher turnover and lower productivity in the long run.”