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Remote work, flexibility increasingly important to young lawyers, ABA survey finds

Nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work remains an attractive option for lawyers, and young lawyers in particular are more likely to make it a priority, a new American Bar Association survey found.

Almost half of lawyers with 10 years of experience or less said they would leave their workplace for one that offered greater freedom to work remotely. And the majority of lawyers surveyed said the quality of their work did not suffer when they worked outside the office.

Women in particular said their work quality, productivity and work hours increased with remote work, the report found.

“A failure by legal employers to provide the desired flexibility will no doubt tempt many younger lawyers to vote with their feet and leave their place of employment for more accommodating employers,” survey authors Roberta D. Liebenberg and Stephanie A. Scharf wrote.

“Given the ongoing war for talent facing the profession, legal employers who want to prevent an exodus of talented younger lawyers in whom they have invested so many resources (and who are comprised of higher percentages of women and lawyers of color), should seriously consider adopting and implementing hybrid work policies and practices that provide for real workplace flexibility.”

The survey, commissioned by the American Bar Association, provides a look at the future of work for the legal profession after the shockwaves caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Many lawyers reported an increased ability to balance work and family when working remotely — and those benefits were especially pronounced among women, the survey found. But lawyers also reported that remote work increased social isolation and hurt the quality of relationships with co-workers.

About a third of lawyers surveyed said they work from home almost all of the time, while about a third said they are mostly in the office. The remaining 40% said the amount of time they work from home varies.

Women and lawyers of color reported feeling more concerned than their white and male counterparts about facing adverse consequences if they didn’t return to the office when asked.

Scharf said in an interview that views on remote work are not just the result of the pandemic. There are also generational differences among lawyers.

Most of the leaders in the legal profession grew up with a culture where you learned face to face,” she said. “The pandemic changed all that, but what also changed was the fact that a newer generation of lawyers grew up online and they are very comfortable with working remotely.”

Significant majorities of lawyers also said they prefer mediations, depositions, pretrial hearings and even bench trials to take place over Zoom or a similar platform. Only 20% said jury trials should be conducted remotely.

The survey also studied whether lawyers feel included in their workplaces. Women reported more stress at work because of their gender; lawyers of color reported more stress because of their race or ethnicity than their white counterparts; and LGBTQ lawyers and disabled lawyers also felt more stress at work because of their inclusion in these identity categories.

Women, lawyers of color, LGBTQ lawyers and disabled lawyers were also more likely to report experiencing a demeaning or insulting comment at work in connection with these personal characteristics, the report found.

Each group was also much more likely to report feeling that they cannot be “their authentic selves” at work either “once in a while” or “often,” according to the survey results.

Scharf said workplace cultures need to shift to make more lawyers feel they belong.

“When people walk around feeling like they don’t belong there, they’re at least thinking about or considering where they can go where they do belong, where they feel they can be their authentic self,” she said.