Despite steadfast support from many organisations for remote working policies in recent years, it appears that the day of reckoning for flexible work arrangements has finally arrived. Corporate leadership is taking an increasingly harder line on wanting workers back at their desks, and the legal industry is certainly following suit.

Nathan Peart

Nathan Peart

After all, if businesses are demanding workers back to the office, it won’t be long before they start questioning why their legal advisers aren’t doing the same. This is compounded by scepticism over the effectiveness of virtual training and development. Law firms may soon find it difficult to justify fees if clients perceive that they are working with an under-trained ‘virtual’ team.

Yet, as perhaps to be expected, this shift back to pre-pandemic office culture has been largely met with a mixture of surprise and frustration by employees.

Firms are therefore facing a unique challenge in training and development, as they strive to navigate the return to office work amidst employee rebellions.

No longer ‘the new normal’

Despite assumptions that post-pandemic working practices were here to stay, there is a dawning realisation that such arrangements are vulnerable to becoming a mere blip. ‘Facetime’ is regaining its importance to career progression, and those who are more visibly putting in the hours will reap the rewards.

It was American law firms in London that first initiated the shift back to office-centric working, with mandatory four-day weeks common post-summer 2023. In response to employee frustration, a number of UK and international firms adopted more flexible policies to differentiate themselves and entice talent. However, they are now beginning to align with their US counterparts. In fact, some magic circle firms are even beginning to track the number of tap ins and outs to their office – a practice that will no doubt continue to grow with increased integration of AI technology.

Breaking the narrative

But are firms truly in tune with the greatest friction points when looking to encourage teams back to the office? Perhaps not. Despite the prevailing belief that the younger workforce is showing the most resistance, it is often senior associates and partners who are more reluctant to re-enter the office full-time. These lawyers have come to appreciate the many benefits of reduced commutes and additional family time, while also managing busy practices and bringing in clients without the added pressures of office life.

Junior lawyers, on the other hand, are more eager to re-engage with office life, seeking greater exposure and mentorship. Despite being more familiar with hybrid working, the opportunities for networking and learning directly from their seniors has softened the blow. Notably, this gap has created some frustration, especially when younger lawyers present in the office find their senior counterparts absent, thereby missing out on critical informal learning opportunities.

Both younger and more experienced lawyers are, however, starting to ask what they will get in return. Now that hybrid working has proven itself to be a sustainable and successful working alternative, it has become harder for organisations to oppose flexibility. Loyalty is waning, and job hopping is far more common than it used to be. Younger lawyers may be more enticed by higher salaries offered by US firms if the working hours at UK firms no longer allow for more flexibility. Meanwhile, fully flexible policies, such as those offering 100% remote roles in exchange for a pay cut, are likely to be seen as mere lip-service by employees who are coming to terms with the reality of returning to a pre-pandemic office culture.

Keeping pace with progress

Firms are at a critical juncture, faced with navigating a complex web of training and development issues, and employee and client expectations. To successfully implement a full return to office, they will have to both acknowledge and cater to the intricate requirements of their employees while upholding exceptional client service and operational effectiveness. Leadership will be key to this transition. If leaders expect their teams to commit to being present, they must be prepared to lead by example.

In particular, firms will require a dedicated workforce managing both virtual and in-person learning and training opportunities. We can therefore expect to see a surge in the importance and size of learning and development teams. On the operational side, meanwhile, demands for office space is at an all time high, and organisations will continue to look to upgrade their fits to create more agile workspaces that will encourage staff back into the office. In the face of client pressure, it is also worth noting that due to their leaner operational models, US firms may be at an advantage when it comes to winning the return to office race.

Ultimately, the path to a flexible working policy that appeases all will not be straightforward, but for lawyers wanting to retain flexibility and firms committed to retaining their lawyers, it is a necessary path to take.


Nathan Peart is managing director and practice lead in the associate practice group at Major, Lindsey & Africa