Edge International


Remote Work and Firm Culture: More Than Just Foosball Tables and Kegs!

Remote Work and Firm Culture: More Than Just Foosball Tables and Kegs!

The biggest chokepoint in firms these days is the inability to align most lawyers- particularly younger lawyers- around behaviors that keep their firm most healthy. I’m often asked, “this remote/hybrid work model is shielding our people from the collective ambition and shared expectations that are the mother’s milk of firm success. How do we motivate our lawyers to really extend themselves for our firm, and what should those contributions look like?”

Falling short here reveals itself in a number of ways. Remote/hybrid work models can drive collaboration through the floor and weaken firm connective tissue. Younger lawyers at many firms know they are smart enough to contribute just enough- and no more- to keep their jobs, and they behave accordingly. The relationship between law firm and associate can be mercenary-like- “what can you pay me today? . . . ” and “what work can you produce today? . . . ” appear to be animating requirements. Also, beyond accessing shared administrative services, lawyers can have a hard time seeing how their output is enhanced by being part of a particular firm. In short, the compact between “law firm” and “lawyer” is flagging, and high performing culture suffers. In response, foosball tables and kegs suddenly appear in firm reception areas (a la Silicon Valley startups)- but doesn’t an enabling law firm culture deserve a more serious response than that?

Let’s step back here and look more generally at law firm culture. Firms that celebrate their “culture” occupy extremes on the culture continuum. Firms that are most proud of their culture often speak in terms of autonomy and entrepreneurialism (“we leave you alone”). Occupying the other end of the culture spectrum are firms that aren’t bashful about applying a slew of processes to help lawyers and practice groups support the collective health of the firm; these firms believe that selective top-down management can outfit their lawyers with tools that will help them be more successful.

So how can firms recover their mojo and motivate their lawyers to overperform and overcontribute? Well, step #1 might be to expunge any reference to wanting a “high performance culture” and rather speak in terms of building a “high commitment culture.” “Performance” implies a narrow outcome, often expressed in financial terms. “Commitment” is a broader concept that speaks to efforts, behaviors, and process- not just outcomes. “Commitment” is less threatening to lawyers and more in their control. We’re talking about trying to effect significant behavior change at scale with white collar professionals- non-heavy “carrots” tend to work better than do threatening “sticks.”

Supporting, motivating and activating remote professionals address a symptom of something larger. Step #2 in enabling overcontribution requires a holistic response. In my work, I encourage firms to:

Most firms sound bite this problem as “what are we going to do about remote working?” but the implications go deeper and wider. Firms can create real distance from their peers if they marshal an integrated response- not a rules-based response for when you should or should not be in the office. Be serious and holistic, and you may find that foosball tables and kegs need not do all of the heavy lifting!

Mike White

was a practicing attorney for seven years prior to founding and operating two enterprise software companies — Sirius Systems (sold 1997) and MarketingCentral (sold 2007). He owned and managed ClientQuest Consulting, LLC for 10 years serving law firms. He holds an AB in History from Duke University and a JD from Emory University School of Law.