Biglaw, Billable Hours, Boutique Law Firms, Small Law Firms, Technology

From Biglaw to Boutique: Face Time

Tom Wallerstein

Historically, to succeed in Biglaw, associates were expected to be conspicuously present not only during the workday, but at night and on weekends as well. Meeting this expectation is generally referred to as putting in “face time.”

Face time has negative connotations. An associate puts in face time so that he will be perceived to be working as hard, or harder, than his colleagues. The implication is that the time spent at the office is strictly for show, as opposed to serving any bona fide purpose. Some attorneys are especially resentful of face-time requirements because they believe their value is easily and objectively reflected in their billable hours.

Associates, however, are now rejoicing that the face time requirement is lessened thanks to the rise of virtual offices, telecommuting, and other non-traditional remote working arrangements. Finally, binders full of women are able to hurry home to cook dinner without suffering from disparate pay or partnership prospects.

But is that really true? Is face time less important than it used to be?

Face time goes beyond giving the appearance of working hard. If that perception was all that mattered, associates could rely on time-honored methods of faking it. For example, legions of associates fancy themselves clever because they leave their lights on, and their computer running, after they leave. They hope that their colleagues will think they are still working long after they have gone home.

I had a friend in Philadelphia who worked for one of the largest firms in town. He routinely left work at 6:30 p.m. and had dinner and drinks. He’d go back to his office around 9:00 and stay for twenty minutes or so, trying his best to “accidentally” run into as many people as possible. I would laugh about it because his modus operandi was hardly unique. The firm was a veritable ghost town at 7:30, but between 9:00 and 9:30 it was Grand Central Station.

Telecommuting and working remotely have led to modern versions of the same subterfuge. Most associates have figured out how to take advantage of delayed-delivery emails so that they can appear to be working far later than they really are.

Technology admittedly makes it easier for attorneys to work from home. I do not believe, however, that any of the traditional reasons for face time have lessened.

For example, in my experience, being physically present at the office was an important way to get choice assignments. If a partner had three or four associates he might choose to work on a matter, then, all else being equal, he would assign the matter to the first of those associates he saw. Having my office located next door to an influential rainmaker helped me get assigned to many of his cases. A key partner’s office is ground zero for important firm activity, and that was one reason why that’s where I mainly spent my time.

Face time is also essential for keeping up with, and in tune to, firm gossip, “buzz,” and the culture in general. You can gain critical, career-enhancing insight just by being privy to complaints from the administrative staff, or overhearing a partner grumble about management issues, etc.

Being present also allows you to discuss cases or ad hoc legal questions that arise, but that would not warrant a telephone call or email. If I see an associate at his or her desk, I am much more likely to pick their brain about something. If I know the associate is working from home, I may not bother to email or call with the same question. This is a concrete way in which being present leads to interactions that might be missed when working remotely.

It also behooves you to be around when news of an important victory comes in, and to see how a crisis is handled. When the managing partner walks in the door, having just received a favorable verdict at trial, you want to be there to hear the good news, and to share in the moment. Even when disaster strikes, you can learn a lot by witnessing firsthand how the partners react.

Studies have suggested that partners may subconsciously draw conclusions based on which of their associates are present during a crisis. One partner, for example, reported being annoyed when an associate was not immediately available. Obviously, just being present won’t keep him happy all the time, but if he could check and see his associate in the office, he was comforted to know the associate was available if needed. Even after the crisis passes, the partner may not remember that it was nothing more than face time that annoyed or comforted him.

Face time is also important in more subtle ways. Going to firm events is important to show that you are a “team player,” and that your values are aligned with the firm’s. When a firm hosts an event, it is doing more than providing a take-it-or-leave-it fringe benefit. It expects its associates to attend if possible. This goes for welcome lunches, goodbye lunches, summer associate events, etc.

I have written before that running your own firm liberates you from some of the more unpleasant aspects of face time, such as participating in grueling, death-defying hikes in sub-zero temperatures. But as my firm has grown, I’ve learned that face time can be just as important for a partner. Associates are less likely to be motivated to work hard if they know that, while they are toiling away, you are relaxing in a Jacuzzi while enjoying Sonoma County’s finest offerings. I believe you have to lead by example, and if you expect your associates to work long hours, you better be willing to work them yourself.

Working at a small firm has different face time dynamics than does Biglaw. Small firms tend to be less formal and have less bureaucracy. Many small firms pride themselves on supposedly not requiring face time.

But I don’t think face time necessarily is always less important at small firms than at big firms. At a small firm, your presence or absence is more likely to be noticed. At many big firms, depending on the location of your particular office, you can sneak in and out without anyone knowing. At a small firm, if you take a long lunch, or go home early, everyone knows. How this increased visibility affects you really depends on the management of your small firm.

For better or worse, a number of studies are showing that embracing nontraditional, remote working arrangements may have hidden costs for employees. Employees working remotely “may end up getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their colleagues in the office — even if they work just as hard and just as long.”

All these dynamics, incidentally, are also reasons why traditional brick and mortar offices will never become obsolete no matter how appealing virtual offices may be for other reasons. And in all these ways, face time actually provides tangible benefits above and beyond just providing the appearance of working hard.

Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at

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