By Meredith J. Kahan, Esq.
As the COVID pandemic waned, Angela was thrilled to learn that her organization was adopting a Hybrid Work Policy. She enjoyed working from home, and the time saved from her hour-long commute provided extra flexibility with her toddler and household demands. Drew, her supervising attorney, was supportive when Angela said she would like to take advantage of the policy. Drew preferred to work in the office every day to get away from the chaos at home. After a few months, although Angela’s productivity had increased, she found she wasn’t being invited to as many client discussions. She had a hard time getting a hold of Drew, even when she was working in the office. Angela found herself wondering whether this role was sustainable long-term.
Over recent months, while COVID numbers slowly declined, discussions around the balance of remote and in-person work peaked, with many organizations rolling out hybrid work models, which typically permit some combination of the two. Yet questions about how many days employees should physically be in the office, how to coordinate employee interactions to maximize value, and how to maintain company culture persist.
Despite all the chatter, one important question remains unanswered: How will a hybrid model specifically impact female and diverse attorneys, groups that have been historically underrepresented in leadership, promotions, and overall presence in the legal industry as a whole?
First, kudos to responsive organizations offering this option to interested employees. However, not every employee wants to take advantage of remote work, and this is where additional complications arise. With some attorneys in the office, employees who choose to work remotely may be disfavored. In other words, because of proximity, habit, and the unconscious preference for the familiar, there may be a bias in favor of those who are working physically in the office every day.
Beyond this baseline complication is the potential that women and diverse attorneys may be negatively impacted. A number of studies show that women gravitate toward remote work for a variety of intuitive reasons—including flexibility to care for children, to assist aging parents, and to handle housework. (See CFW Survey Finds Most Women Prefer Remote Work). Similarly, diverse attorneys may be inclined to work from home as this gives them the chance to avoid microaggressions that can be an exhausting part of daily work life for those who are BIPOC. (See, e.g., Return to Office? Some Women of Color Aren’t Ready, see also Working From Home Is Beneficial to Some Black Women).
Diverse talent is critical to the success of a legal organization. If some of the most valuable talent may be at risk for a stalled career, what steps can a legal employer take to avoid this derailment?
- Plan Communications. Encourage supervisors to set up frequent one-on-one meetings with those on a hybrid schedule, since there may not be the same opportunity for spontaneous discussions.
- Bring the Outside In. Make sure remote workers have an equal chance to contribute during pre-planned meetings by providing a link to video technology for all meetings where those in the office will be face-to-face. Even more importantly, remember to include remote members of the team even during a spontaneous meeting. If there is discussion around a case while in the breakroom grabbing a cup of coffee, teams should learn that the next step should be “let’s take this into my office and call up Angela to get her input.”
- Share Preferences. When remote work was more universal over the past two years, video technology seemed to dominate. Now that employees are back in the office, take the time to be clear about the best way to communicate. (“If you don’t get me on the office line, I’m probably walking around the office—please text me.”)
- Evaluations. When evaluating performance, be objective about contributions (e.g., focus on work product rather than intangibles like “they don’t seem that committed”). This includes both informal feedback as well as formal performance evaluations.
- Work Assignments. Before assigning work or doling out other opportunities (new cases, client pitches, etc.), stop and consider who else you might consider approaching (e.g., attorneys in other offices, those you have not worked with yet, those on a remote schedule). Better yet, consider adopting an objective work assignment procedure.
Legal organizations—and particularly law firms—have lagged behind in diversity for many years. They cannot afford to overlook an ancillary effect of any policy. Rather than pull back on flexibility and the hybrid model—they must work smarter at ensuring all employees, especially disparately impacted diverse attorneys, are integrated into the organization and supported to facilitate success.
Meredith J. Kahan, Esq. is the Chief Legal Talent Officer at Whiteford Taylor & Preston LLP where she oversees the firm’s attorney recruiting, development, and diversity efforts. She has more than 20 years of experience in the legal field and speaks and writes frequently on these and other topics.