Honing the Hybrid Life

By James G. Leipold
From PDQ in NALP Bulletin+
October 2022 edition


  • 16 min read
  • Some law firms are ramping up in-office requirements.
  • Others have gone to fully remote work arrangements.
  • PDQ Advisory Group members share their perspectives on the hybrid life.

None of us could have known in March 2020 that the nature of work was about to change forever.

But here we are in October 2022, having moved seemingly from pandemic to endemic. The COVID-19 infection rate curves continue to rise and fall with each new variant, bobbling from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, with hospitalization rates and — more importantly, death rates — staying significantly lower than they were at the beginning of the year. Ongoing vaccines and boosters and masks have been fully normalized.

And we’ve staged a much-heralded “return to work” that has been only marginally realized in the breach. Law schools have “returned” more completely than legal employers, with most schools fully in-person now, though some professional and administrative staff have some discretionary hybrid work available to them. On the legal employer side, at least at law firms, people are more consistently working in hybrid settings, both enjoying and struggling with hybrid life, and especially struggling with the challenges of engaging and integrating new associates.

During a recent PDQ Advisory Group meeting we had a wide-ranging conversation about the pluses and minuses of this new reality. As a group, we mapped out our thoughts in writing, seeing both the positives and the negatives of our current situation, but everyone agrees that we will never go back to the before-times, never return to a normal that includes everyone working in the office every day. This article shares some of the insights and experiences that this particular group of NALP members has encountered in the hybrid world.

As NALP’s Executive Director and a longtime member of various iterations of the PDQ Advisory Group, I try to step back and see the bigger picture. In some ways I think this is super exciting, despite the many challenges ahead. I believe we are living through something akin to the Industrial Revolution, where the nature of work in the west will be changed forever. We are only partway through that set of changes, and so the future is murky and fraught, but I hold out hope that a new normal will emerge that is something better than what we had before the pandemic. At a minimum, I hold out hope that we arrive at a place where the nature of “work” is more equitable and inclusive than it was in the before-times, but that won’t happen without constant and deliberate attention to the possible inequities of every decision we make.

While the NALP office’s transition to remote and hybrid work has gone very smoothly, relatively speaking, staff members mostly agree that there has been a net loss of informal communication and sense of team that has proven somewhat difficult to remedy, as I’m sure many of you have experienced. And at the most recent Annual Education Conference in New Orleans, we experienced a new attendance pattern driven by our new hybrid life: while attendance at plenary sessions and networking events was excellent, we found that attendance at the concurrent sessions was lower than in the past. Some probing revealed the reality that many conference attendees felt compelled to return to their hotel rooms midday to take care of day-job responsibilities, because — as some of the PDQ Advisory Group members note below — one of the downsides to the hybrid world is that it can feel as if you can never truly step away. That’s not necessarily true, but it’s a constant battle to fight that instinct and perception. It takes considerable fortitude to truly step away from work in our endemic world.


“It has been challenging building relationships in a primarily remote environment.”

Stephanie Felder, Director of Professional Development and Diversity at the Groom Law Group, focuses on the positives. She writes:

In the past year, I have moved jobs to a primarily remote position for a firm in Washington, DC. I live in Richmond, VA about two hours away. I go into the office on average about once a week, but my schedule is largely determined by what events are happening at the firm. The commute sounded scary at first, but the total amount of weekly commuting time has actually gone down. Going into the office five days a week meant about five hours of commuting time. Now, if I make the trip to DC every week (which I don’t), it’s still less time than I spent going into the office every day.

I have a great deal of flexibility to determine when I go into the office and when I stay remote. This flexibility has been fantastic for me as a mom of two kids under eight years old. Pre-pandemic I didn’t have the right home office setup to do much other than respond to emails. With everything available at home, I can be fully productive. When I have a sick kid at home, I am still able to work and take care of my child. If I have a doctor’s appointment or errand to run, I can easily adjust my schedule. I also love being able to wash a load of laundry during the day (it’s the little things!).

It has been challenging building relationships in a primarily remote environment. It requires a lot more intentionality and focus. I have been able to connect at in-person events and (through Zoom) still get a lot of face time with the lawyers and firm leadership. One advantage to being remote is that I’m proactively thinking about relationships whereas previously, I built relationships on a more impromptu basis.

Because of being remote, I expect to be evaluated based on output and results. In professional development, some of the work we do is not as visible as training programs or retreats (i.e., coaching, research, and idea generation). I have found myself focusing more on results and being proactive in communicating progress than before the pandemic which I believe has positively impacted my overall performance. I have not worked longer hours than pre-pandemic. I’ve always set firm boundaries for work-life balance and that has not changed for me with the change in my working location.


“We need toolkits for this new way of working.”

Kay Nash, Chief Talent Officer at Wiley Rein LLP in DC, articulates some of the frustrations of her new hybrid life:

My hybrid life is best summarized by a statement that we often say at Wiley, “COVID won’t let us be great!” Or, at least, it won’t let us be as great as we want to be. Our launch of hybrid work was originally scheduled to happen on December 13, 2021, and then due to the increased number of COVID cases, was pushed to January 3, 2022, and then pushed again to March 1. Since March 1, our flex policy says that attorneys should spend 50% of their time in the office the schedule and frequency is determined by them individually and their workloads. What we have found is that junior associates really like being in the office, and a small group of senior partners like being in the office but everyone in between wants more flexibility. We know that we need to show a “return on experience” for coming to the office. For us, that was supposed to come with the launch of our summer program and a vitality and community building zeitgeist around the summer events. The universe had other plans and we walked back in-person activities for the remainder of June and made them virtual due to another round of increased COVID cases in DC.

Regardless of our own firm’s plans and the level of occupancy in our offices, I have observed a few things. First, it is difficult to transmit culture over WebEx and Zoom, and despite our best efforts, we still need to think about new ways to highlight our firm’s culture and its benefits in a hybrid model. Second, we need toolkits for this new way of working. Lawyers need help in learning how to best assign work and give feedback in a virtual world, and how to best create engaging meetings and team agreements. Professional staff teams need to codify how they will best work together, and have some accountability when people aren’t operating in the agreed way. And third, associates need tools and support to engage virtually in networking and building mentoring relationships, and they need rules of engagement for their own professional development roadmaps and checklists for how to make outreach to others and how to add value in those communications. There’s a lot for us to do here as NALP members!


“I wonder if I’m missing something that doesn’t really exist in the same way anymore.”

Reva Pollack, Director of Professional Development at Arnold & Porter LLP in DC, appreciates the unanticipated benefits that have come with her new fully remote position, but recognizes the challenges it brings:

As many of us have done recently, I started a new position in January 2022, and with this new position I am now permanently remote. I never thought I would enjoy working from home, but over the course of the pandemic I have really come to appreciate so many things about it. At this point in my career, I am working across offices, with a team that is spread out as well, and so being in the office doesn’t mean as much to me as it did when I was in a different role. Even pre-pandemic I was rarely in a conference room speaking with people in person, and so being on the phone or on Zoom from the comfort of my home instead of an office just makes sense for me.

My current challenge is that my remote office set-up is still less permanent than I’d like I’m still working from my dining room! That definitely makes it hard to set work aside at the end of the day. It becomes too easy to hop onto my computer to send a few emails or finish something up I didn’t quite get done. The challenge for me is knowing when it is important to do that, and when it can wait for the following workday. Like most working parents, I have found working remotely makes life much easier in terms of managing life, too. For example, I can put together a crock pot at lunchtime, so dinner isn’t a crazy rush. I do miss the social aspects of having an office to go to, but I wonder if I’m missing something that doesn’t really exist in the same way anymore now that so many places are hybrid.


“Remote work has provided a level of flexibility I could have never imagined.”

NALP Board of Directors member Dana Gray, Managing Director of Professional Development at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP in Minneapolis, has found real joy in the flexibility that her new hybrid life provides:

In the past few months, I have just begun to adjust to the transition to hybrid work. My firm was fully remote from February 2020 until the spring of 2022 when we were asked to return to the office two to three days a week.

While it took a few months to get the hang of remote work, it has provided a level of flexibility I could have never imagined flexibility to attend to personal tasks, more time with family, and finally time for exercise. My new love is walking around my neighborhood. I have enjoyed finding new routes, fantasy house shopping, and the changing seasons. Summer means an early morning walk before the heat of the day sets in. Winter brings the challenge of ice-covered sidewalks and huge mounds of snow to navigate. Along with many of my colleagues, and regardless of the changing seasons, I schedule meetings during walks and use the time to multitask. But my walk is for more than just meetings. I find my walks are often a great time to reset my brain and do nothing else for a few minutes. Too often my walk is too short literally around the block some days. But on the good days, a longer walk is my luxury.

My transition to hybrid work has also provided some much-needed variation. With my in-office time each week I look forward to seeing colleagues in person and planning a lunch or a coffee, and I look forward to the buzz and excitement of being downtown. There is a pang for the restaurant or small shop that has gone out of business, but there is an excitement for the new new buildings, new colleagues, and new routines. This summer has provided a wonderful opportunity to welcome our new summer associate colleagues. It is interesting to talk with them and hear their perspectives since many new associates don’t have a point of reference for a prior way of working.

But as much as I enjoy my downtime and office time, to be honest, on the days when I’m home, I appreciate it just a little more. A few extra minutes of sleep. My son popping into my home office in the middle of the day for a visit. And, of course, my walk.


“This shake-up showed us there are other ways to conduct a successful and productive business.”

Michele Bendekovic, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Bass, Berry & Sims PLC in Nashville, reflects on what hybrid life has been like for her, while acknowledging the irreversibility of what we are all living through:

I have been in the legal industry for over 30 years and have experienced the ups-and-downs that were the result of things beyond our control affecting our economy or our world. When those periods were over, the legal industry got back to the traditional way of doing business. However, this latest disruption shook us to the core. Despite that shake-up, we showed how resilient, adaptable, and compassionate we really are. This shake-up also showed the legal industry there are other ways to conduct a successful and productive business.

Remote work and now hybrid work for me has been an overall positive experience. Do not get me wrong the beginning was very stressful, and boundaries were hard to define, but I feel I have a good balance now. I look at this as a value proposition I value the flexibility to choose when I am in the office and when I work from home. I value the flexibility and control to free up time in my schedule to handle personal things, like being able to take care of my mom for an extended period, after her knee replacement. I appreciate the work that we did in our firm to help our colleagues embrace change and stay motivated to do our best work in ever-changing circumstances.


“The downside was that I never fully unplugged.”

Finally, Michelle Nash, Director, Learning & Development at Hogan Lovells, who is in touch with the challenges the new environment provides and ever the master of industry research, writes:

As much as I’d like to unplug, there is this nagging feeling that I need to be accessible, flexible, and agile at all times. I’d like to be clear that this is self-driven. My behavior and mindset is not the result of any messaging from the firm. Quite the contrary, the firm has made it clear that we need to take time away. Not surprisingly, the research supports the fact that we are having trouble disconnecting from work. A Qualtrics study found that 49% of U.S. employees are working at least an hour each day while on vacation. During July, I took a week’s vacation and had eight scheduled meetings that I attended remotely. In addition, I responded to emails throughout the week. The upside to this was I didn’t have to ramp up coming back from vacation, the downside was that I never fully unplugged.

I recently read a McKinsey article about how the world of work goes through generational cycles (starting back with the Industrial Revolution) where we have the opportunity to reimagine how we work. It was a glimmer of light for me, and I’ve been feeling more optimistic about hybrid work and the role I can play in shaping the future of work. How can this generation of workers create a new, more effective way of working?

The world of work is changing so rapidly that it often feels like we are planning for a vague idea of what the future might be. We have spent countless hours over two years serving our internal clients by re-engineering everything that we do when it comes to learning and professional development programming. Our lawyers and partners are now hungry for more purposeful in-person gatherings where they can learn and connect with their colleagues. Given the savings that the virtual world has provided to firms, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in 2023 and beyond.

It certainly has become more challenging to connect and engage. In fact, the research on engagement is dismal. Article after article report that now, more than ever, folks are considering leaving their current employer to go elsewhere. One of my biggest concerns is keeping my team engaged in a way that helps them to grow professionally and feel connected. I am lucky to work with an amazing team of gifted individuals within the L&D [learning and development] function at my firm. My own career satisfaction is tied to their satisfaction and engagement. We do a lot to make our virtual connections meaningful. We do not just connect, we interact. Our meetings include activities, small breakout group discussions, polling, and also include pre- and post-reading and reflections, all in an effort to help normalize the way we interact. We set aside time to have conversations about our lives outside of work to simulate the conversations we would have had over a lunch.


Getting the Hang of this Hybrid Life

I suspect that most of what your NALP colleagues and peers have shared here is representative of what most if not all of you are experiencing as well — a sense that everything around us in the world of work is changing, a recognition that there are both positives and negatives to these changes, and a deep if uncomfortable understanding that things will never go back to the way that they were three years ago before the onset of the pandemic. Michelle Nash talks about needing to plan for what is only a vague sense of what the future will be, and that can be unsettling. Michele Bendekovic describes appreciating the flexibility we have all gained in this new hybrid world, and the value proposition that flexibility provides. Dana Gray seizes on the new opportunities for joy that her new hybrid life has brought her. Kay Nash wants us to be better at this than we are and wants us to be able to provide the tools our young lawyers need to succeed, as they also face tremendous uncertainty. Stephanie Felder values the opportunity to juggle home and work responsibilities more nimbly and has learned to focus more on results and being proactive in communicating progress than before the pandemic.

Each of us has learned things about ourselves and our relationship to work, and each of us has faced challenges in integrating these hard-won lessons into our daily lives in ways that are nurturing to ourselves and the people that we spend our lives with, but I think we are getting the hang of this. We are only partway there for sure, and much work lies ahead, but the horizon is clearer now than it was a year ago, and far clearer than two years ago. We are honing our skills and embracing our nimbleness, even as we continue to fight old habits and instincts. The one thing that has always united NALP members is their desire to make things better for the law students and lawyers they serve. The pandemic and the advent of hybrid work life has not changed that.

This article was submitted on behalf of the PDQ Advisory Group.

James G. Leipold is Executive Director of NALP, the National Association for Law Placement.
National Association for Law Placement, Inc.® (NALP®), 1220 19th Street NW, Suite 510, Washington, DC 20036-2405, (202) 835-1001 [email protected], © Copyright 2024 NALP


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