In order to avoid alienating or confusing attorneys and staff, firms need to consider their audience and tailor their messaging thoughtfully, says Calibrate CEO Jennifer Johnson in this Law.Com article.

As news starts to come in on how Big Law is going to handle returning workers to the office, the question becomes how to go about that in a way that is equitable, understandable and transparent. Subtle differences in wording can make a big difference in how employees feel about coming back. 

Firms including Sullivan & Cromwell, Reed Smith and Davis Polk & Wardwell have announced firmwide policies and programs in the last week, each with a slightly different approach.

Sullivan & Cromwell, announced last week that the firm was “strongly encouraging” people to come back to the office, but isn’t mandating it. A couple of industry observers said that messaging could be confusing.

“I think there is inherent bias in it,” Jennifer Johnson, CEO and founder of legal consulting firm Calibrate Strategies, said in an interview. “Meaning, it infers that there is some sort of judgement for not returning to the office.”

In a recent interview with Law.com, Sullivan & Cromwell chair Joseph Shenker, for his part, disputed reports from Above The Law that some employees were unhappy with the firm’s message. He said the policy had been received well.

Johnson said her firm placed four people in legal positions last week, and only one of them was excited to be back in an office. The others had questions about what the work from home policy was. While anecdotal, Johnson’s small poll runs parallel to what most firms are hearing from their employees in return-to-work surveys—for those that have conducted them.

When enticing people to come back, the impetus is on the firm itself to explain, clearly, why it wants people back, as well as making that message about the people in the office, not those in the boardroom.

“I think the challenge is that lawyers are, for the most part, very internally focused,” Guy Alvarez, founder and chief engagement officer at legal marketing and development consulting firm Good2BSocial, said in an interview. “This can play out in being not client-centric enough,” or, with return-to-office policies, in “not focusing on their employees.”

Alvarez added: “When it comes to messaging, make it simple, think about the audience you are trying to reach and be positive.”

Shared, but Differing, Experiences

As people within firms absorb the news of return-to-office plans, those who have the most concern about coming back to the office may be the ones who have the least leverage to object.

“We all had this shared experience of the pandemic,” Johnson said. “But we all experienced it differently. The socioeconomic status of people in the boardroom is different than that of the non-exempt employees at the firm.”

Johnson said those workers will need a high degree of clarity over whether they are expected to be back in the office or whether they have discretion.

“If you look at major metro areas where mass transportation is how most people get to work, I think it is tricky to say it is strongly encouraged to come back at a certain time,” Johnson said. “If you take a bus to a train to a subway every day, like many non-exempt and hourly people do, that’s hard for people. Whereas a partner might take a black-car service. It’s different.”

Alvarez said, and Johnson agreed, that having someone outside the boardroom help craft the message can go a long way in making sure it isn’t tone-deaf.

“It’s difficult as a business, just like as an individual, to know how you are perceived by others,” Alvarez said. “An outsider who has no skin in the game can be helpful in understanding that.”

“If you are going to issue statements that are going to affect people’s lives, they need to be vetted by people outside the management bubble,” Johnson said. “You can’t have people who work in a boardroom just issue a statement if they don’t understand how it affects 99% of their employees.”

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