Remotely Right or Remotely Wrong?

In my last post, I discussed Airbnb’s Work Anywhere Policy. In this post, I take a closer look at what light it sheds on law firm management.

LIFO (last in, first out) is one approach to managing inventory, but does it make sense for your workforce? For some organizations, the “last in” are employees who were hired remotely earlier in the pandemic and continue to work remotely. At the point of hiring, they met an urgent need. But now that some law firms are expecting a decline in work flow, do these associates become the easiest to offload because of LIFO or, more problematically, because they are fully remote? And what about the lawyers who were hired more traditionally but are now taking advantage of hybrid arrangements to work mainly remotely?

These are among the questions considered by Roy Strom in his recent Bloomberg column, Remote Lawyers at Risk of Falling Behind if Big Law Demand Drops. How you answer them reveals whether your firm is remotely right or remotely wrong. What does this mean?

Remotely Wrong

In a remotely wrong firm, fully remote workers are something to be tolerated for as long as the hiring crunch or pandemic lasts. So you tolerate the fact that they are not co-located with you and you treat them like second-class citizens who will never be “quite like one of us.” Consequently, the moment there is a downturn or you decide to mandate a return to your physical office, these people that you’ve barely bothered to get to know become the easiest to kiss good-bye.

Remotely Right

In contrast, a remotely right firm realizes that it no longer needs to be constrained to the talent pool that lives within a reasonable commuting of its office. Instead, it can find and hire the best possible talent — no matter where they are located. Plus, the remotely right firm has realized that its financial resources are better spent on its people than on its offices. So this firm invests in its people by thoughtfully designing work so it can be done wherever its people are. And this firm invests by ensuring its people develop individually, as well as collectively as a community.

The Airbnb Example

In my last post, I discussed Airbnb’s new live and work anywhere policy. While your reflex reaction may be to say “it’s fine for tech firms but won’t work for my organization,” take a moment to think about the problem they are addressing:

We want to hire and retain the best people in the world (like you). If we limited our talent pool to a commuting radius around our offices, we would be at a significant disadvantage. The best people live everywhere, not concentrated in one area. And by recruiting from a diverse set of communities, we will become a more diverse company.

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If you are not focused on this issue too, you’ve got a big challenge ahead of you.

What Should You Do?

Following the Airbnb example word for word may give some of your senior colleagues heart palpitations. But if you want to take advantage of the talent opportunity, here are some principles you should adopt and deploy:

Talent first. Focus on recruiting and retaining the best talent you can, regardless of location. The better your people, the better your work, and the better your financial results.

Redeploy your resources from supporting physical offices to supporting talented employees. Help them figure which locations enable them to be most productive regarding specific tasks, and then provide the infrastructure that makes it possible for them to work efficiently and effectively wherever they are.

Targeted training. Be intentional about how you develop and train your people. The old days of benign neglect when you hoped that serendipitous work assignments and some mandatory CLE courses would suffice for training. Now your senior lawyers must be trained to provide regular effective training to their team. And you must create systems to ensure they and their junior colleagues are equipped and ready for professional development.

Access to opportunity. Be intentional about how you make opportunities available to your employees. Is everyone given equal access and equal support? Or are the old, flawed, but very human ways of preferring to work with the people you know still your default?

Create community. Be intentional about how you create community. When people are no longer co-located, you cannot blindly rely on serendipitous encounters or occasional social interactions to maintain relationships. Instead, provide multiple modes for people to meet virtually and in-person — whether for business or social reasons. And support these modes with effective technology or travel that is underwritten by the firm. Every strengthened personal connection strengthens your firm.

What Are You Waiting For?

To be honest, these are things we should have been doing all along. But now we have a compelling business reason to do them, provided, of course, you’re serious about recruiting and retaining the very best people for your firm and its clients.

[Photo Credit: Simon Abrams]

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