Op-ed: Flexible work models should improve law firm culture

By Susan Smith Blakely

I have seen the effects of insensitive law firm cultures in my own career and the careers of so many others. Although the most severe impact has been to women lawyers with family and childcare responsibilities, male practitioners also have suffered from the inflexible demands of a profession that has refused to examine itself critically.

Until now, perhaps.

Within a week’s time, announcements by Big Law players on major work-life initiatives in their law firms have provided hope that the sands may be shifting in favor of more reasonable policies and programs to reflect a changing world. This is recognition that the millennial generation, especially, is capable of embracing current technology that could benefit both themselves and their law firms.

Last week, Morgan Lewis announced its initiative allowing associates, who have been at the firm for at least two years, the opportunity to work from home two days a week. Similar announcements followed this week by Jackson Lewis and Baker McKenzie.

Peter May, Baker McKenzie’s chief talent officer, described the incentive behind the new program this way: “If you actually create an environment that is flexible, that enables people to be at their best no matter where they happen to be, you’re going to have much more engaged employees. If they’re more engaged they’re going to be more productive, and if they’re more productive, that’s going to have huge organizational implications.”

Morgan Lewis’s rationale for its forward-thinking program, however, was the one that got my attention and buoyed my spirits the most. That rationale revolved around the recognition that losing talent is very destructive to law firms and that making tested and proven work-life concessions will help protect talent in a very competitive industry.

Yes, this rationale is more law firm centric, but it reflects the truth that we all know to be the greatest motivator for change: Competition. Let’s call it what it is. Programs like this create a bond between employer and employee that often results in the kind of loyalty that traditionally has been missing in law firm cultures. One Morgan Lewis partner referred to the new program as necessary but very expensive. Another member of the firm described the program as "a reflection of the trust between the associates and the firm."

We should take this as good news — very good news — and we should give the prescient leadership of these law firms the credit they deserve. We also can hope that other law firms will follow, and that what we are seeing is a law profession that is coming of age and throwing off the shackles of the past that are not only confining in a modern world but also are destructive.

As I wrote in a Corporate Counsel article “Is Work-Life Balance for Lawyers a Hopeless Goal in the Legal Profession?”:

“The only thing standing between the current workaholic culture of law firms and this brighter future for lawyers is greed. It was the greed of Wall Street that brought on the Great Recession in 2008, and that experience should serve as a harbinger to law firm leadership. Greed and pursuit of high profits at the expense of the well-being of lawyers and their families will lead to no good.”

Let’s call it what it is and make all efforts to do better.

Susan Smith Blakely is a lawyer, author, speaker and career coach. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Georgetown University Law Center. She is the founder of LegalPerspectivesLLC, and her Best Friends at the Bar Book series addresses the low retention and advancement rates for women lawyers. She can be reached through her website, www.bestfriendsatthebar.com.

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