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How a Pilot Program Prepared Morgan Lewis for Remote Work

How a Pilot Program Prepared Morgan Lewis for Remote Work

Like everyone in talent management, we are always looking at creative initiatives to retain talent. For this generation of associates, flexibility and remote working are among the key benefits they are looking for when deciding on law firms. At Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, our Firm Chair Jami McKeon, who is a pioneer and a working mother herself, realized the benefit of a formalized remote working program, especially for our working mothers and diverse associates, who are often caregivers at home.

Morgan Lewis launched a pilot remote working program in 2017, long before the pandemic. The lessons we learned from the pilot program prepared us well for a full program that has been in operation over the last several years. And that experience, in turn, prepared us well for this year’s unprecedented and extended work-from-home situation for our 4,000 lawyers and staff. As many companies wrestle with what their in-office workforce will look like in 2021, we wanted to share what has worked for our firm over the last three years.

We started the pilot program with a small group in Los Angeles, where many of our associates have a long commute to the office. At the start of the three-month program, we sought to mirror the office experience at home. To ensure a seamless transition for both the lawyers and our clients, we set up a complete hardware system with double monitors, laptop docking stations, and a phone that rang from the office numbers. That’s now our standard setup for those who are in our remote working program, but we’ve added printers.

What we discovered during the first few years of the program is that remote working doesn’t completely mirror the office experience; in fact, there are things we didn’t anticipate that turned out to be some of the best things about working from home. If you want to go for a run at lunch, fantastic. If your work hours change because you aren’t sitting in a car or running out to get lunch, great. You can run an errand, handle child drop off or pick up duty, or walk your dog—all without fighting traffic and worrying about being late. That is the exact type of flexibility this program was designed to create.

For our associates in the formal program, we train them on how to work remotely, manage their time, and meet the expectations of our clients and the firm. And we want to make sure that being at home does not mean that the associates feel isolated or that the firm culture is affected. So we emphasize mentoring, firm programs and participation in larger initiatives so that they are connected with the firm while not being in the office. Initially we limited participation to associates who are at least in their third year, or lateral lawyers who have been with the firm for more than a year so there is already a connection to the firm and to an office.

While some people think productivity will suffer out of the office, the opposite was true in our case. We saw billable hours stay the same or increase in our beta test because associates saved time on commutes and could work more easily at any time. And we were very glad to see that non-billable hours on thought leadership or firm committees stayed the same—the associates continued participating in the firm programs that we hold so dear to our culture. As for the 300-plus lawyers who’ve participated in the formal program, we’ve seen both men and women benefit, with about 60% of participants being female.

The pandemic created surprises for everyone, but our remote working program meant that we were prepared—technologically and culturally—for the pivot that took many others off guard. And we’ve learned a lot of new lessons. Perhaps the best result is that even those lawyers—many senior lawyers especially—who were skeptical about the ability to work as effectively remotely have seen that working remotely is not only possible, but also effective.

We are focused on 2.0 of our remote working program. We won’t go back to the way things were—and that’s true not just for law firms. The whole world is looking at creative and innovative ways to work. COVID-19 has altered the landscape of working from home forever. It has both opened up the conversation and the opportunity to do things differently. We’re glad we had a head start, and we look forward to helping lead the way for the future.

Lani Walser is the firmwide Senior Director of Associate Talent for Morgan Lewis. In this capacity, Lani leads strategic initiatives related to associate engagement, career development and advisement, performance management, integration, and retention.

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