Notice And Comment: The Five-Day Office Week Is Returning

Enjoy working from home while it lasts — because it's coming to an end, according to this reader.

Welcome to Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at davidlat@substack.com, and you can register to receive updates on this signup page.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Notice and Comment post about law firms returning to the office. Some of you commented on that post — which is, as I’ve explained, the whole point of Notice and Comment — but some of you sent me thoughts through other channels. That’s great — I always welcome hearing from readers, by any method — although my preference for Notice and Comment is for you to post in the comments.

One reader recently shared the following thoughts with me. As I did previously with A Biglaw Associate's Lament, I’m using them here as fodder for Notice and Comment.

Do you agree? Is the five-days-in-the-office workweek returning? Or will law firms and other legal employers continue to be flexible, even post-pandemic?

If you have views of your own about a topic in the news that you’d like me to feature for a future Notice and Comment, please email me: davidlat@substack.com. Thanks!

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I am rather skeptical of the supposed death of the five-day, in-office work week, something which Biglaw associates seem to be confident is upon us. I think that’s pretty naïve.

Of course, the five-day workweek won’t resume overnight. But my prediction is that, barring another surge in Covid-19 or a new pandemic, working out of the office every weekday will effectively return, no later than the beginning of 2022.

Why? At least three reasons.

First, I think that people seriously underestimate how embedded the five-day, in-office work week is in our culture.1 Everyone worked five days a week in the office for decades, they were very productive, and now that things are normalizing, the powers that be, as always, will want to return to the status quo. And it’s already begun. Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are now moving toward ending remote work. Government lawyers, like a friend of mine who works in a DA’s office, have been told they’ll be returning to five days in the office. Once the smoke clears, I see no reason why Biglaw is going to end up being any different. To put it bluntly: A year or 18 months is just a blip, an aberration, despite the constant cries that “everything is now different.” Like usual, it won’t be.

Second, this may come as a shock, but Biglaw firms pay lots and lots of money for their office space. They are very proud of their offices. Many of them moved into new offices or renovated old ones in the past few years. Commercial leases are long (and I’ve no doubt that commercial landlords will help incentivize firms to bring everyone back as frequently as possible). At some point soon (if they haven’t already), Biglaw partners will realize that it makes no sense to keep paying for space that nobody uses. Associates and staff may not like that, but they’re associates and staff.

Third, people will grow tired of the Zoom meetings, if they haven’t already. While quarantine led plenty of people to proclaim “This is the future!” it won’t take them long to realize that when Zoom isn’t necessary, face-to-face is the way to go. Partners I’ve spoken to are pretty unambiguous about this, and they are chomping at the bit to get butts back in seats.

Some caveats. It will probably be easier to get permission to work remotely than it was before. And some Biglaw firms may do this three-day-a-week-in-the-office thing for a bit longer still, or at least until they notice their peers aren’t into it (and some firms have already made very clear that they aren’t).  In other words, some flexibility might last for this “it’s over but it’s not over” period we are in right now with the pandemic. But when the pandemic is truly over, you will truly be expected back in the office, Monday through Friday, perhaps first gradually, and then it will seem like business as usual (which, well, it is).

That’s not to say the partially remote work week wasn’t a nice dream. But it was just that. And to paraphrase True Detective, like many dreams, there’s the same old monster at the end.

1

Has it always been thus? Of course not. But this seems to be the model we’ve settled upon.

Thanks for reading Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at davidlat@substack.com, and you can share this post or subscribe to Original Jurisdiction using the buttons below.

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