Zoom and other remote work tools reshaped the legal industry in the nearly three years since the start of the pandemic. Who among us doesn’t love the thrill of secretly taking a professional meeting in pajama pants? Yet, for all the utility we derive from remote working, there remains a rich debate on exactly how to blend them with the traditional in-office business model.
Much of the discussion has focused on what will yield the best mix of productivity and culture. Among larger firms, most have settled on the so-called Kirkland model, which requires attorneys to be onsite at least three days per week. But there’s evidence that model isn’t taking root the way we’d expect. I recently attended a law firm managing partner conference, and a speaker from a large consulting company that evaluated the effectiveness of the model called the three-day model a “flop.” Enforcement is inconsistent, which can damage morale, and attorneys that highly value flexibility have ample opportunity to find alternative employment even in a tightening labor market. Worse yet, the training, mentorship, and culture that law firm leaders seek to cultivate are being hampered by the lack of face-to-face contact.
Is there a way to foster culture and cohesiveness that firms need without sacrificing the flexible remote working tools that attorneys want? There is no easy answer to this question. But I’d like to propose one element of the equation that law firm leaders are missing: how can we interject some element of fun into the new work world?
A Core Human Need
Fun is not something we typically associate with the high-level practice of law. There’s little “fun” to be had in sifting through thousands of pages of paper, polishing the ninth draft of a nondisclosure agreement, or reading dozens of cases looking for the one turn of phrase or fact pattern that might change the tide of your case.
Yet, the circumstances surrounding those long, plodding hours we spend can often be a riotous good time. I’ve got more stories than I can remember of spending long nights working beside colleagues on tough cases, cracking jokes as we got tired and loopy, and basking in the feeling of being part of a team that is pulling off something great. Any drill sergeant will tell you that trying times are a strong bonding agent. It’s not only the difficulty of a task that brings people together; it’s also the extra savor that comes from finding fun together in places where it feels like fun shouldn’t exist.
In this way, the three-day-per-week Kirkland model is not off base in its goals. Happiness is a core human need. The funny stories that you hear at the water cooler or the spontaneous happy hours after (or during) work foster a level of social connection among a firm’s teammates. In this way, being in the office likely does bring some level of fun to the work experience. Because of this, and the training and mentorship benefits that come from serendipitous interpersonal communication, you can see why leaders would default to what they know: let’s get people on site to ensure their core need is met. Simple enough, right?
But what happens to the large segment of lawyers in today’s world who aren’t in the office most of the week? Among these are top-quality lawyers who may be dedicated to work but who’ve also made the life calculus that the benefits of flexibility, minimizing commutes, and spending more time with family outweigh coming into the office three days per week. Those who are not in office are not only at risk of being put on the “B-list” because of their perceived lack of dedication, but they don’t have a mechanism for the “fun” that connects people to one another and the office.
This increasingly large segment is left devoid of this core human need for happiness and deep connections. Even the biggest proponents of flexible working have to admit that it’s hard to develop and maintain new relationships through a computer. I’d argue that firms should be concerned about this at a human level. But, even if they’re not, they should be concerned because this could translate into continued recruiting and retention challenges. Yes, the issue may subside as the economy tightens and lawyers are less mobile but, make no mistake, it will come roaring back the moment options begin opening up.
So if forcing people onsite isn’t the answer, what are Biglaw firm leaders to do?
How We Retreated To Move Forward
Firms need to get creative. In an age of flexible working, I’d argue that much of the cost savings that firms realize from real estate and travel need to be reinvested in social activities where remote and in-person workers can gather on a more frequent basis. This means more practice group gatherings, office parties, and team celebrations. The focus of these events can’t be just work. Leaders need to ensure that they maximize in-person time by providing opportunities for fun and deep human connections that people crave.
Firm leaders will need to flex their right brain hemispheres and get creative to pull this off effectively. Classic events like the time-honored “firm retreat” need to be reimagined. When I was coming up the associate and partnership ranks, firm retreats were a time for CLE, business meetings, and then some socializing in the evenings once the work was done. All of that has value, but these days it’s cheap and easy to find CLE tailored to your specialty online and cross-office business meetings can be easily held on Zoom. Moreover, I can’t think of a single CLE or business meeting that I ever attended which would have changed the mind of an attorney thinking of leaving the firm — or of an attorney considering joining.
We kept these principles in mind when we planned our recent firm retreat at Fennemore. Our retreat philosophy leaned into facilitating the fun that’s been so lacking the past three years. Our “Into The Future” retreat had a classic ’80s theme, complete with a rented DeLorean. We crafted fun swag bags, music, videos, and events that were all about getting our people together to laugh and make memories.
And our team rose to the occasion. People dressed up and let their hair down. We had an attorney attend in a full-body ALF costume, as well as another rocking a Teen Wolf look. When we put in the time, money, and effort to create a space to have a good time, our people made one. I think we generated the fun we were hoping to, and maybe even more.
You Can’t Afford Not To Have A Good Time
All this fun isn’t just a squishy sentimental notion. Fun feels great and bonds teams, but fun also has serious ROI. Fun might be the difference between keeping and losing a good attorney, or between gaining and missing out on a new team of laterals. When you consider that losing an attorney can cost a firm over $250K between lost revenue and the cost of recruiting to replace them, firms can’t afford not to try to make themselves a joyous place to spend time.
Fun is also first-class marketing for a firm’s brand. I was pleasantly surprised to see the positive responses on social media, both internally and externally, that our fun-focused retreat was able to generate. I saw one attorney proudly post “Does your firm have a DeLorean?” on their socials, while others circulated unboxing clips of their swag bags. Retreat guest speaker and editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur Magazine Jason Feifer even posted on LinkedIn about our training and mentorship “Hackathon” event, noting we have a “creative, forward-thinking culture — not what I usually associate with law firms.” Fun creates FOMO. If your firm is where the good things are happening, you’ll never be at a loss for the talent you need to grow.
For all the varying philosophies within firms about remote work culture, all of us at heart want to achieve the same goal. Every one of us wants to build a firm that is the best possible place to work at. How we get there will differ from attorney to attorney, but I think all of us can agree that our ideal firm is somewhere that facilitates the bonding, connection, and fun that fulfills us as the social creatures we are. If we can focus on that larger philosophical goal, the steps to get us there might just become that much easier for all lawyers to get behind.
James Goodnow is the CEO and managing partner of NLJ 250 firm Fennemore Craig. At age 36, he became the youngest known chief executive of a large law firm in the U.S. He holds his JD from Harvard Law School and dual business management certificates from MIT. He’s currently attending the Cambridge University Judge Business School (U.K.), where he’s working toward a master’s degree in entrepreneurship. James is the co-author of Motivating Millennials, which hit number one on Amazon in the business management new release category. As a practitioner, he and his colleagues created and run a tech-based plaintiffs’ practice and business model. You can connect with James on Twitter (@JamesGoodnow) or by emailing him at James@JamesGoodnow.com.
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