In a move that could signal a radical shift in workplace ethos, a committee of the state’s highest court is urging Massachusetts law firms to offer all lawyers flexible schedules as they return to the office after more than a year of remote work.
The move follows an announcement that Ropes & Gray, one of the nation’s top law firms, will embrace a hybrid schedule post-pandemic and doesn’t intend to ask lawyers to appear in the office again five days a week — ever.
The report, which is being released Friday, is aimed at relieving working parents by changing a culture that values billable hours and extensive face time at the expense of a work-life balance. Like workers in many other industries, lawyers who spent the past year demonstrating their productivity while working remotely, often while supervising children whose schools were closed, are being more vocal about their own needs as they anticipate a return to work.
“What the pandemic showed is that it’s doable,” said Naomi Shatz, an attorney at Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP. “It’s not anyone’s ideal scenario to make sure a 5-year-old gets on Zoom at the right time and help figure out what the math homework means while trying to be a litigator. But it was possible. If you get the child care piece taken care of, working remotely, in my view, works just as well in many ways as being physically in the office. I think that is something that a lot of law offices did not recognize before the pandemic and are now seeing.”
The recommendations come from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, a group formed in 2018 in response to an American Bar Association national task force that had documented chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance abuse among many lawyers and law students. The committee, led by retired SJC Justice Margot Botsford, began looking for solutions and a report, released in 2019, had already recommended that large firms allow remote work. Little changed, though, until the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the traditional work week and scattered staffs to their respective home offices.
“It was a recognized issue and I heard a lot of lip service being paid to it. I did not see a lot of actual structural changes around it,” said attorney Alexandra H. Deal.
Deal, a litigator, found work at a large firm untenable when she had a 9-month-old and a 3-year-old, whom she sometimes didn’t see at night, returning from the office as late as 1 a.m.
“It just became very apparent to me that that culture was not going to work for a working mother,” said Deal, now a partner at Paik, Brewington & Deal, LLP.
Stesha Emmanuel, an associate at McCarter & English, pointed to tales of female lawyers leaving a purse conspicuously on a desk to suggest their physical presence — even as they stole away to pick up children from child care.
“Being physically in the office and burning the midnight oil is what [was] expected,” she said. “Now you’re in a situation where — OK, I can still work just as hard and provide you with a quality work product, but I might not be burning the midnight oil in the office. I might be at home. I might take a dinner break so I can fulfill this work-life balance that I’m told that I can have.”
Emmanuel, immediate past president of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association, said the report was intended to provide different perspectives to partners.
“The folks who are the decision-makers tend to be the older white men. Are there other people that are directly impacted that are also in that room making the decision? Because if not, then you’re only going to have one perspective — that is, working in the office creates team-building, productivity that you wouldn’t get if you’re remote. And while that can be true, for a mom who has to pick up her child from day care or a father who has to drive his son to soccer practice, that model might not work.”
Emmanuel also noted that such initiatives could help firms retain diverse employees — a goal to which an industry dominated by white men ostensibly aspires. The report pointed out the same.
“While a rethinking of traditional workplace norms will benefit everyone in the workplace, the choices that leaders now make about workplace structure post-pandemic will demonstrate the true extent of the support to increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal profession,” says the report.
Women shouldered a disproportionate burden of domestic work during the pandemic, the report notes, and are fleeing the workplace in droves. The American Bar Association recently found that women lawyers, anticipating that their firms will not meet their post-pandemic needs, are contemplating leaving the profession.
But past efforts to promote flexible work, often aimed at parents, have not gained traction, because longer hours are so often associated with higher commitment, the report notes. As a result, the report takes pains to say the offers should be standard.
“Flexibility in the workplace is good for all,” the report says. “To ensure a level playing field, efforts must also be made to encourage non-female attorneys to take advantage of these opportunities, and to ensure that no stigma or retaliation is applied to those who do.”
Of course, some legal work is better done in person, said Deal, pointing to depositions, meetings, and some court hearings.
But lessening the pressure for billable hours and the punishing workload of a high-pressure law firm could benefit many in the field, the report said.
“The question now facing this great Massachusetts legal community is whether we will take the opportunity presented to us by the challenging year of COVID to begin to innovate and expand the possibilities for balance and inclusion in the workplace,” the report states, “or whether we will revert to pre-pandemic norms that were problematic and ultimately not sustainable for many attorneys then, and will remain problematic and not sustainable for many going forward.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.