As work from home becomes more widespread, the risk to a cohesive law firm culture grows

Once a firm is just a collection of its parts, the claim to be a learned profession may disappear

Ian Holloway

As we now are beginning to see glimmers of light at the end of the Covid tunnel, we are all starting to imagine the post-pandemic working world. “The new normal,” “WFH,” “Zoom check-in” — these have all become part of our professional vocabularies in the past twelve months.

We’ve found, many of us anyway, that we’re able to meet much of our daily quota of productive work without having to go to a formal workplace. Indeed, as the New York Times and others have reported, some find it positively liberating not to have to schlep downtown to an office each day. A recent Harvard Business School study suggests that more than four-fifths of American workers don’t want to return to the old office lifestyle.“As we’re preparing to get back to business as usual, it seems professionals don’t want ‘business as usual,’” HBS executive Patrick Mullane said.

And some studies, particularly early in the pandemic, suggested that there had been no appreciable loss of productivity — which had been one of the big worries when we were on the eve of the first lockdown. Moreover, social media is replete with gleeful stories of lawyers relegating suits and ties and dress shoes to the back recesses of the closet and stocking up on sweatpants and hoodies. It is true that in this, as in so much else, women tend to bear more of the day-to-day brunt of balancing child care and paid work, but I know of many female lawyers who dread the day that we all might have to return to the office.

And what is not to like about working from home? Comfy (and less expensive!) clothing; no more traffic jams; less money on gas; more sleep; seeing your spouse and kids more regularly — check, check, check, check and check. And if you happen to be a managing partner or CEO, there is the bonus of potentially reducing the office footprint, which in turn is good for the bottom line.

Those firms whose leases are coming up for renewal must be doing the sums as I write: How much space do we need in a post-pandemic world? How much of the workforce can we keep on this WFH gig? In fact — and this is where the eyes get wide — do we need all of our workers to live in whichever high-cost jurisdiction our firm has an office? Maybe this is the opportunity we have been waiting for to hire a team-based somewhere else, where we do not have to pay quite so much!

The truth is that any managing partner (or law school dean, for that matter) who is NOT going through these thought exercises right now is probably negligent. But the problem is that many of us will neglect something that also goes directly to the bottom line. That is the impact of our post-Covid work arrangements on organizational culture.

“Culture eats strategy for lunch,” management guru Peter Drucker famously is supposed to have said. That is why leaders are well-advised to keep their eyes on the organizational culture ball. A present-term solid bottom line is no guarantee of long-term health — or even of bare survivability. Just ask the former partners of Heenan Blakie. Or Coudert Brothers, a firm that pre-dated Canada by fourteen years. In 2004, it was ranked as one of the hundred highest-grossing firms in the US. A year later, the firm dissolved. From venerable to roadkill in twelve months!

When I joined the profession, it was still the accepted norm to article at a firm and then spend one’s whole career there. That notion now seems laughably quaint, at least in metropolitan practices. Lawyers are tremendously mobile and can — and do — carry their books of business to new pastures all the time. Whatever stigma the label “lateral hire” once had is long gone. Nimble managing partners are always on the prowl for established talent who might be enticed to move and, at the same time, doing everything to keep their current talent happy.

But this has come at the cost of what in the military they refer to as unit cohesion. Loyalty to the firm, its founders, history, or traditions is far less important than concern for one’s draw. For top-billing lawyers, firms are increasingly fungible. If my clients follow me, what does it matter whether my letterhead says “A, B & C LLP” rather than “X, Y & Z LLP”? And what about the staff? If the organization does not need their physical presence to function profitably, mightn’t that hasten the commodification of the labour that supports lawyers? Is that the kind of change that we want to embrace?

This commodification is our reality, and it is just stress that successful law firm leaders have learned to manage. But the question that we all need to be asking ourselves is whether the work from home movement will only increase the erosion of whatever remnants we have of the idea of a firm being something more than a collection of its constituent parts. That, in turn, will have a good deal to say about whether we really can claim to be a learned profession any longer. As we sit at home, comfy in our sweats and t-shirts, that may be something to ponder.

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