What’s Eating the Remote Lawyer Life?

Data is a tricky thing. It can give you a window into surprising facts you hadn’t been attuned to, but it doesn’t give you the why. I had this experience when authoring the 2022 AILA Marketplace Study, a triannual study about immigration practice. Our survey, which had been answered by more than 1,700 immigration lawyers, asked about satisfaction with practice (a common question for us) and remote work (a new question spurred by workplace changes).

When we overlayed the satisfaction question with the remote work question, a startling trend appeared. Remote immigration lawyers were less satisfied than hybrid or solely in-office immigration lawyers. Where the overall response rate of “a great deal” of satisfaction was 47%, remote immigration lawyers reported “a great deal” only 41% of the time, while “in-office only” reported 50%.

Similarly, those who reported “too little” satisfaction from immigration practice went from 5% in the general answers to 11% in remote only immigration lawyers, and only 3% for in-office only. While these are small numbers, “too little” satisfaction was historically single digit for about a decade. When it becomes double digits, that matters. What was making remote only lawyers less likely to be satisfied and in-office lawyers more likely to be satisfied?

The issue was even more pronounced when gender was factored in. Women appeared to prefer in-office. Fifty three percent of women who were in-office only found satisfaction “a great deal” in the profession (6 points higher than the average) while only 42% of women who were remote only found “a great deal” of satisfaction (five points below the average).

Men were even more likely to find less satisfaction if they were remote only. While only 2% of men who were in-office only said they found “too little” satisfaction from the practice of immigration law, 16% of men who were remote only said the same—that’s 11 points higher (meaning lower satisfaction) than the average. Only one third of men who were remote only found “a great deal” of satisfaction in their work—a 14 points lower than the average.

*Republished with permission from the American Immigration Lawyers Association. All rights reserved.

These were dismal numbers, and not in line with the common refrain of 2022 that remote work was a revolution we were all jazzed about. What wasn’t clear from the data was why. What about remote work was leaving more lawyers underwhelmed with their careers? I looked for other research to try and answer this conundrum.

I looked to the 2023 Clio Trends Report which asked about preferences for work. There, 49% of lawyers said they preferred to work from home and 45% said they preferred to meet their clients virtually—nearly half. Respondents also said they wanted autonomy. A whopping 76% said they wanted to choose what hours they worked and 69% said they “preferred to work throughout the day (not 8am – 5pm).” That seems to contradict our data about immigration lawyers.

But then it got really interesting, because those same respondents on the Clio Trends Report were less likely to say their job satisfaction was good or very good in almost every category if they worked outside the regular working hours (on this question between 8-9am and 5-6pm). In other words, those who had their way and got to work throughout the day, not during the normal work hours, had 19% lower satisfaction when asked about relationships with clients and relationships with colleagues, 16% lower on professional life satisfaction, 17% lower satisfaction rates on mental and emotional wellness, 12% lower satisfaction on their time management, and 8% lower satisfaction on their revenue contributions to the firm. In fact, the only thing they had equal satisfaction on was their salary.

This seems to be saying that we want autonomy to work where we want, when we want; but that when we get it, we aren’t happy. That seems a paternalistic oversimplification. What is more likely is that lawyers who haven’t been working remotely for years may not have the boundary-setting skills necessary to maintain well-being and satisfaction.

It could also mean that employers have, in the best-case scenario, not taught them or given them permission to develop those skills, and in the worst-case scenario, do not respect their lawyers’ boundaries and demand them to be available 24-7 now that the technology permits it. I expect it depends on the situation. In many law firms I talk with, it seems that small teams can do well and stay connected and unified under a common mission, but that once you get into teams bigger than eight or 10, they seem to struggle to keep people engaged and connected to each other and the firm. For those who continue to work remotely, there is an erosion of a bond that is almost ethereal, almost the stuff of science fiction or the spiritual—something that unites people when you see the whites of their eyes.

We are at an interesting juncture. I expect the Great Reshuffling is still playing out and more will be revealed. More lawyers seem less attracted to the lethal environment of no life and living by the billable hour every day. But if firms want to attract new talent and continue to evolve, they need to solve this puzzle of the malaise that can take over the remote-working lawyer and the dissatisfaction that can creep into their experience of work. HINT: A first step for a law firm to solve the puzzle should be investigating the concept of rest (different from sleep) and surveying how their employees come by rest.  Because it’s not only that we can all work remotely. It’s also whether we enjoy it sufficiently to stick with it.

About the Author

Charity Anastasio is practice and ethics counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, where she assists immigration lawyers in finding their passions, keeping their licenses, and scaling their businesses to match their ambitions.


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