Trial Briefs

Young Lawyers Welcome Flexibility, Work-Life Balance

September 21, 2022   |   Gagan Gupta

The critically acclaimed show “Better Call Saul” offers several portraits of the classic lawyer. Donning black suits, they dine in stuffy restaurants and drive Cadillacs or BMWs. This portrait plays on a common perception that the legal profession is drab and slow to innovate. Clients, after all, expect their lawyers to avoid unnecessary risk and provide reassuring guidance. Lawyers are known to respond to calls for change with the profession’s oft-repeated mantra, “This is how it’s always been done.”

The pandemic forced all that to change. Lawyers, against their will, adopted forward-looking trends and remote communication tools already prevalent in other industries. A 2021 video of a Texas lawyer went viral after he appeared on Zoom for a remote hearing while accidentally using a cat filter, nervously stammering to the judge, “I’m here, live, I’m not a cat.” Even the profession’s oldest traditions fell victim to the pandemic. In June 2020, the Supreme Court of North Carolina announced that oral arguments would be conducted remotely for the first time in the institution’s 200-year history.

What this characterization overlooks, however, is that one segment of the legal profession has long been well-positioned to adjust to the demands of the pandemic: the plaintiffs’ bar. Contingency work requires efficiency, meaning plaintiffs’ lawyers must be entrepreneurial by nature and strive to stay ahead of the curve. This was nowhere more evident than in their rapid adoption of the pandemic-era shift to remote work.

As a young lawyer and recent newcomer to NCAJ, I witnessed firsthand how the plaintiffs’ bar made this shift with relative ease. In 2020, my fiancée and I had planned to hold our wedding reception at a small French bistro in Durham over Labor Day weekend. With that in doubt, I contacted the bistro’s ownership, offering to review their insurance policy to see if I might play a small part in helping this long-standing eatery stay afloat. A few weeks later, I left my full-service defense firm to join Paynter Law and file suit on behalf of the ownership’s 16 restaurants seeking business interruption insurance coverage for pandemic-related losses.

Remarkably I did not meet my clients in person until six months into the case when, in September 2020, we gathered outside the Durham County Superior Court for our summary judgment hearing. At the end of the hearing, Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr., through his N95 mask, would enter a first-of-its-kind ruling in favor of coverage, marking a watershed moment in the ongoing national effort to hold insurers to the promises they made to small businesses.

This experience was admittedly stretching. My entire working relationship with my clients up to that point had been remote. Every aspect of the litigation, including those discussed in this magazine’s issue, had been conducted through phone calls, texts, emails and video conferencing (rest assured that after our victory, we gathered in person for a celebratory alfresco dinner, a noted plus of representing restaurants). Fortunately, I benefited from the experience of Paynter Law, which has long been a remote firm. Less than half of our staff work from the North Carolina offices, with the remainder scattered across the country. My team knew from the outset how to interact with clients and courts from a distance, including, most importantly, how to build trust among everyone involved. That trust was central to our success.

This shift to remote work is likely here to stay. Remote work ranks as a top priority among young professionals. According to a Gallup poll released in November 2020, a majority of remote workers are millennials (52 percent, versus 29 percent of Gen Xers and 17 percent of baby boomers), a whopping 74 percent of whom aim to continue working remotely long after pandemic restrictions on businesses and schools subside.

When I canvassed my cohort in NCAJ NEXT — a leadership development program for young trial lawyers that is currently in its inaugural year — the preference was clear. More than luxury offices or better benefits, my peers appear to crave autonomy over where and when they work. One explained that because remote work offers “flexibility and a better work-life balance,” she finds herself working “harder and more efficiently,” which makes her a “happier employee and lawyer.” Another prizes the ability to “set my own schedule” and to “save time commuting,” which allows more time for family and leisure.

These young lawyers not only embrace remote work but have found unexpected ways to leverage it. Mass quarantining eliminated travel costs, which opened the door to greater participation by junior lawyers in their cases. As one NEXT fellow explained, the pandemic “allowed me to participate in more mediations, conferences and hearings than I would have been able to otherwise, which has really helped my growth as a younger attorney.” Another welcomed the “competitive hiring environment” spurred by the pandemic, where employers began “offering different styles of work and environments” to attract top talent.

My personal observations confirm that professional connections also flourished for younger attorneys despite being stuck at home. I participated in multiple Zoom panels where attendance rates among young lawyers and even law students were surprisingly high. I joined two Zoom happy hours — one where we bid a colleague farewell, and another that was organized with no express agenda except for a small group of young lawyers to spend time together (both instances are notable if only because they took place despite widespread Zoom fatigue). The NCAJ NEXT program launched in the era of quarantining, and our earliest virtual sessions resulted in multiple subsequent one-on-ones that blossomed into meaningful personal and professional connections. Networking is no longer limited to meeting over coffee.

Young lawyers — already comfortable with remote technologies — have been given license to connect virtually with almost anyone, anywhere.

This is not to suggest that remote work is for everyone. Certainly, something goes missing when we are all remote — in the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook, “each other.” It is simply to say that while the question of how to adapt has always vexed the legal profession, a new generation of lawyers sees the disruption to the workplace brought about by the pandemic as an opportunity for creativity, growth and even balance. Young plaintiffs’ lawyers in particular will carry forward a culture of remote work into other parts of the legal profession: namely, courts and the defense bar (famous for its “face time” requirement).

All of this was on my mind during a recent conference for civil rights advocates when a newly minted lawyer asked for my business card. After I obliged, he handed me his in return. In place of his contact information appeared a QR code that linked to a virtual meeting scheduler. I thought to myself, if only Saul Goodman could see this.