Lawyers aren't all-in on remote work. Here's how they're eyeing a return to the office.

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In 2020, lawyers proved they could be as productive working from home as they were in the office. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to go back.

Most lawyers prefer to be back in the office full- or part-time, and only a small number would like to stay remote permanently, according to a workplace study from Gensler. Lawyers said that collaboration and keeping up with colleagues’ work is easier in an office setting. 

In December 2019, lawyers reported spending 34% of their time collaborating in-person or virtually. But after months of working from home, lawyers said they only spent 20% of their time on collaboration. While lawyers say they focus more while remote working — 71% of their time compared with 58% of their time pre-pandemic — they also miss their colleagues. Half of lawyers are lonely working from home, the study showed. 

Timothy Bromiley, Gensler’s legal industry leader, said that right now, what’s missing from lawyers’ workdays is the ability to casually run into colleagues and have non-scheduled interactions with others. 

“The connection you get being in a room with someone is different than on screen,” he said in an email to Business Insider, noting that in-person communication is even more important for younger lawyers who learn by visual observation and conversations that happen on the fly.

“A young associate sitting in an office with a partner who puts a call on mute to explain what is going on is difficult to replicate in a virtual communication,” Bromiley said. “A lot of training comes from observation and personal interaction.”

Even as most lawyers are eager to head back into the office and reap the benefits of working with colleagues and clients in-person, 56% say they like the flexibility of remote work and would like to keep doing it sometimes. Thirty-four percent of lawyers would prefer to work from home one to two days a week; 22% would like to work from home three to four days per week; 25% would like to return to the office full-time; and 19% say they’d like to stay home full-time. 

Read more: The post-pandemic law firm will consist of smaller summer classes, more remote workers, and a less decked-out office, a top legal recruiter predicts

While lawyers are more open to the idea of remote work sometimes because it is easier to focus and they can maintain the same amount of productivity, when they return to the office, lawyers remain more conservative about office space than in other industries.

While more than half of US workers now prefer shared or open office plans, lawyers overwhelmingly prefer having an individual workspace. 83% of lawyers want private workplaces, compared with 2% who prefer shared spaces and 15% who prefer open plans.

Bromiley explained that lawyers’ commitment to private office spaces is cultural as well as practical.

“Culturally, a well-appointed private office has been considered a reward for years of hard work, signaling tenure and achievement. It was part of the motivation to put in long hours and bring in business to the firm,” he said. At the same time, he said some law firms have moved away from cushy, corner offices for partners and instead are redesigning their offices to include smaller, private spaces for everyone and may even consider open sections to help young associates build camaraderie.

Still, lawyers make more use of their office spaces than workers in other industries, according to Gensler research, so it makes sense to have dedicated, private spaces where lawyers can focus, think and work without distractions.

“Practically, lawyers do get more use out of their workspace than most other industries — 43% of lawyers say they work at least 50 hours in a typical workweek,” Bromiley said. “Prior to the pandemic, lawyers were more likely than most to spend the vast majority of their workweek at the office — 95% of their time at their primary office location, compared to 80% of the overall population representing all other industries.”

Read more: Big Law career guide: The top trends to watch for the legal job market, from what practice areas are faring the best to how they’re stepping up on diversity

For lawyers, having a physical office space is necessary to foster diversity and inclusion

Law firms are still overwhelmingly white and male, with and diversity increases more and more at the partner, practice-group leader, and management level.

Read more: 2 key steps law firms must take to boost diversity — and how being inclusive can help land major clients like Microsoft

Only 38% of lawyers think their firm’s leadership is racially and ethnically diverse, although about half think their firms as a whole and their specific teams are diverse.

But lawyers say going into the office is key to breaking down racial and gender barriers. 45% of lawyers say work is where they make most of their new friends, and 71% say they’ve formed friendships with people of different genders and races at work. 87% of lawyers also say that going into the office has also helped them form bonds with people of different ages. 

Bromiley said there is a natural tendency for people to reach out to colleagues they work with the most and already have strong connections with, and not being in the office and visibly seeing other colleagues decreases the chance that lawyers’ will reach out.

“In this type of environment, not all attorneys are getting the same opportunities,” he said.

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SEE ALSO: 2 key steps law firms must take to boost diversity — and how being inclusive can help land major clients like Microsoft

SEE ALSO: The post-pandemic law firm will consist of smaller summer classes, more remote workers, and a less decked-out office, a top legal recruiter predicts

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