Ever since “RTO” became a real possibility, I have been firmly and decisively on the fence about the best policy for firms to follow.  A free-for-all come and go (or don’t come) as you wish?  Sure, why not?  We’re all adults here, right?

Now my view has changed.

Before explaining why–and what your firm might want to consider in reaching your own policies–may we stipulate a few preliminaries?

  • Zero days per week working from home and zero days per week in the office are both probably a bit extreme to enact as policy: The benefits of each (RTO and WFH)–most of the benefits, anyway–can  be obtained with more flexibility.
  • Offices are not,if they ever were as Platonic ideal, about lining up row upon row of small rooms or high-walled cubes where individuals retreat one by one with their laptops.  Offices are about presence, conversation, collaboration, spontaneous interaction, team dynamics–and of course getting close to clients who need or want to come in themselves.
  • So offices can be smaller (square feet) but more generous, full-featured, and welcoming ($$/square foot).

So far, so uncontroversial (I hope!).

What knocked me off the fence of thinking every one could make it up for themseles were a few things, but most notably the announcement by Davis Polk that those flouting the three-days-per-week in the office policy could see their bonuses suffer:

“We’re very focused on having our team in at the same time,” said Neil Barr, chair and managing partner of Davis Polk. “The expectation is that you come to the office and you support the culture of the firm by being here in person.”

He elaborated:

At Davis Polk, the firm has emphasized the importance of offices for some time. In annual performance appraisals last year, leaders told employees that the firm planned to think about reviews in “a more comprehensive way going forward,” Mr. Barr said. That is because it sees benefits from the mentorship, training and professional development that occurs in-person, he said.

“When you’re working in a profession where apprenticeship is part of the craft, I just don’t believe it can be done digitally,” he said. “So we feel really strongly about it.”

After a firmwide town-hall meeting in March, soon after the policy revision that noted a lack of in-office attendance could impact bonus payments, some employees asked questions. A small number of employees might wish the policy were otherwise, Mr. Barr said, though it is also meant to create fairness in the office among those who are consistently coming in.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m not apologizing for this conclusion,’” he said. “I think this is a really fundamental part of our ability to be a premier law firm. There are a lot of things about this institution that are special, and you cannot replicate them digitally.”

The same WSJ  article reported that JPMorgan’s operating committee, described as “made up of a top level of executives from across the bank and the inner management group of Chief Executive Jamie Dimon,” released a memo dictaging that Managing Directors at the bank were expected in the office five days a week, and others no fewer than three.

Separately, a day or two later, we had breakfast with the Managing Partner of an elite litigation boutique who described how at his firm the associates and younger people were “happy to come in so long as others on their team were going to be there,” but that many of the senior partners had decided that five days a week at their home–or second home–was just dandy.  After some gentle discussion of legal training–litigation especially–working on an “apprenticeship” model, he seemed prepared to rethink the laissez f’aire hands-off approach the firm had been taking.  We gathered from the discussion that this heightened expecation of being present and accounted for could involve monetary sticks.  (The Davis Polk coverage is silent on whether the demerits will apply to partners as well, but the logic  and thrust of Mr. Barr’s statements would support that inference.)

And if it strikes many of you that the most senior people are creating the appearance of “taking advantage” at worst and at best being tone-deaf to the tensions, anxieties, and inconveniences of our brave new RTO/WFH [dis]equilibrium, I would have to agree.  If anyone should discommode themselves for the long-term benefit of the firm and their colleagues’ professional development, it’s the most senior people.

We’ve been living this experiment long enough as an economy and as a nation that some academic studies of the issue are beginning to emerge!  And although this is one study of one group of employees at one firm, some of the preliminary indicators align with our intuition:  As reported the other day in the NYT:

Since the start of the pandemic, sweeping workplace changes have arrived far faster than the research examining their effects. More than 50 million Americans, largely in white-collar jobs, began working from home at least part of the time. Many of them, especially working parents, became fiercely attached to the flexibility. In recent months, as large employers — including Amazon, Disney and Starbucks — have tried to call workers back to the office, thousands of employees have objected, pointing to a track record of productivity at home.

But remote workers may be paying a hidden professional penalty for that flexibility, according to a working paper from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the University of Iowa and Harvard. […]

The economists studied engineers at a large technology company. They found that remote work enhanced the productivity of senior engineers, but it also reduced the amount of feedback that junior engineers received (in the form of comments on their code), and some of the junior engineers were more likely to quit the firm. The effects of remote work, in terms of declining feedback, were especially pronounced for female engineers.

We find a now-versus-later trade-off associated with remote work,” said Ms. Harrington, an economist at the University of Iowa. “Particularly for junior engineers who are new to this particular firm, and younger engineers, they receive less feedback from their senior colleagues when they’re remote.”

The study’s findings are preliminary and relatively narrow, directly measuring just one form of interaction among one set of workers at one technology firm. But the authors said their findings suggested something broader: that the office, at least for a certain type of white-collar knowledge worker, played an important role in early-career development. [emphasis supplied]

Granted, they’re academics and they caveat the daylights out of everything, but the stature of the authors is impeccable and their preliminary findings align squarely with out intuition.

But at this point we don’t have to rely just on intuition:  We have been subjects in a massive experiment that we’ve all been  living through for three years.  Time to draw some conclusions?

That’s exactly what a regular commenter to Adam Smith, Esq. did not long ago.  (He goes by “Skeptic” as a screen name but we’ve actually met in person and take it from me, he’s the real deal.)  I think it’s worth hearing everything he has to say, from his perch as a partner in a tasty law firm in the Pacific Northwest.  His emphasis on the reality that shortchanging professional development will have insidious long-term, not immediately visible, effects–like deferred bridge maintenance–is telling.

Three years in, and I’m pretty convinced that it is almost impossible to build partner-quality lawyers without some regular in person contact in an office setting. For law firms, that seems to be the sine qua non of the office. And to be clear, not talking about transmitting substantive knowledge such as how to draft/negotiate this agreement or perform this piece of due diligence (I’m a transactional guy, so I’ll stick to what I know). I’m mainly talking about how to conduct oneself as a professional in a law firm setting as you move up the ladder. Things like feeling the urgency/pressure of a closing in real time with others around you. Seeing how senior associates juggle imposing workloads. Seeing how a partner handles a difficult adversary or client and debriefing afterward. All the informal learning that takes place in the first ten years of a lawyers career, the true formative years. And all of the internal relationships that get built through purely voluntary social interactions, not forced parties/mixers and the like, that no one really has time for over Zoom.

We haven’t seen the bill for this yet. And it won’t manifest the same in all firms. But it’s coming due in the near future. If you regularly work with juniors, I’d argue you can see the effects. They look and feel lost in some important respects even if they are substantively doing well. I feel for this cohort.

What to do? No other way around it. More senior lawyers have to show up regularly and somewhat frequently. Two to three days a week seems to be a sweet spot. But not just being in the office. Checking in on folks. Seeing what is going on in their lives outside of work. Reading their reactions. Time/resources need to be invested in these junior lawyers’ careers. The real senior partners who have raised families and are hanging out at home because it’s just easier don’t have any excuse. Middle management consisting of junior partners and senior associates (where a lot of the informal knowledge exchange occurs) have to just buckle down and do it if they want the organization to be successful in the future. I would argue it should be recognized at comp time too, at least to some proportionate degree.

It’s like exercise. You won’t see the results right away. It’s hard to get started. And once you do, it’s a pain in the butt some days. But over time, done consistently, you’ll see improvement and the results will cascade. And you’ll help some other people in their careers, which is good for the soul.

If you do decide to tighten (or begin!) a policy about expectations for being in the  office, it would be pluperfectly obvious to note that you should expect dissent and resistance.  But.  You have the long-run interests of the firm at heart, do you not?  The future of the firm is its future lawyers, and the caliber of its future lawyers depends on the efficacy, power, and cumulative effect of their professional development.  In this, I have concluded there is no substitute–none–for face to face.

Recall, if the mists of memory have not obscured it, how when the internet burst upon the consciousness of most people a couple of decades ago, the Death of Cities was widely and confidently predicted.  I never believed it.  (And it’s not just self-absorption as a lifelong New Yorker.)  Rather and to the contrary, I believed that people’s ability to connect across even greater distances with ease and reliability would mean humans, as social animals, would want to meet,  in person, more not  less.  If international seat-miles flown are any indication, that has happened.  Our path to the promised land of RTO/WFH equilibrium may be determined by similar motives and drives.

Your move.


Related Articles

Email Delivery

Get Our Latest Articles Delivered to your inbox +

Sign-up for email

Be the first to learn of Adam Smith, Esq. invitation-only events, surveys, and reports.

Get Our Latest Articles Delivered to Your Inbox

Like having coffee with Adam Smith, Esq. in the morning (coffee not included).

Oops, we need this information
Oops, we need this information
Oops, we need this information

Thanks and a hearty virtual handshake from the team at Adam Smith, Esq.; we’re glad you opted to hear from us.

What you can expect from us:

  • an email whenever we publish a new article;
  • respect and affection for our loyal readers. This means we’ll exercise the strictest discretion with your contact info; we will never release it outside our firm under any circumstances, not for love and not for money. And we ourselves will email you about a new article and only about a new article.

Welcome onboard! If you like what you read, tell your friends, and if you don’t, tell us.

PS: You know where to find us so we invite you to make this a two-way conversation; if you have an idea or suggestion for something you’d like us to discuss, drop it in our inbox. No promises that we’ll write about it, but we will faithfully promise to read your thoughts carefully.