The right time for lawyers to return to the office?

Morgan Stanley’s Chief Legal Officer, Eric Grossman, has demanded their outside law firms return their lawyers to the office en masse. However most law firms who act for Morgan Stanley have already incorporated some remote working into their return plans after the pandemic. The request immediately delivers a real headache for firms trying to placate both their key clients and employees. Do they perform a 180 degree turn on agreed terms on the basis of one client’s request?

What You Need to Know About Grossman’s Memo

In his memo dated 15 July, Grossman asserted that the profession cannot long endure a remote working model which he felt would compromise performance.

We choose to hire (the law firms) all because of the quality of your lawyers and the product they deliver. I strongly believe that firms that return to the office will have a significant performance advantage over those that do not, and we will see that advantage reflected in their client service and the ability to deliver successful outcomes for Morgan Stanley,” Grossman wrote.[i]

Market Reaction

Most law firms have accommodated increased remote working flexibility into their return plans, post-pandemic. However, Grossman’s stance came as a bombshell and threw a spanner in the works of these recently established plans. Since the bank is a top-tier client and competition is so high, firms would ordinarily bend over backward to maintain good relations. Although such firms that have advised Morgan Stanley have, unsurprisingly, refused to comment on Grossman’s demand, some of their return announcements have already factored in that office attendance would depend on client and practice needs[ii]. Law firms’ leaders need to find a balanced return model to meet the firm’s business needs and those of their clients, especially the significant players, while also providing flexibility for their staff.

Will Grossman’s demand create a snowball effect in the legal industry? Probably not. Legal leaders from 3M, Adobe, Coinbase, Dell, Lexion, Qualcomm, and W.R. Grace[iii] have a different view of remote working than the Wall Street bank, saying they don’t mind where their outside lawyers work and have no plan to request their preferred law firms bring their lawyers back to the actual office.

One female partner at a global U.K. Top 100 firm decried Grossman’s stance as “inappropriate interference and presenteeism signalling.”[iv] For women and working parents especially, any embrace of the Morgan Stanley expectations by law firms could have seriously negative consequences.

However, there is some support for Grossman’s stance. Greenberg Traurig was the only one of a half-dozen large law firms representing Morgan Stanley that endorsed Grossman’s request and praised him for having “the courage and leadership to speak out during these times.”[v] Robert Chesnut, a former General Counsel and Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb, said that he understood Grossman’s desire for office camaraderie and tutelage.[vi]

Apprenticeship Model vs Remote Working

Grossman’s memo wasn’t focused on having lawyers in the office for the sake of keeping a close eye on them. Instead, he believes individual lawyers learn, improve and collectively deliver the best results when they are working together.[vii] His appreciation of apprenticeship culture was also shared with his peers.

PNC Bank’s Senior counsel, Ryan Thompson, shared his support in a LinkedIn post saying, “I am not saying 5 days a week in the office is necessary. I have been doing something resembling the hybrid model for 6 of the 8 years I have been in-house, but so much of my knowledge comes from in-person mentoring.”[viii] Also, several partners do also agree with Grossman’s reasoning that the personal development of young lawyers needs to be a focus.

A compromise could be the establishment of successful apprenticeship online training programs. Instead of forcing young lawyers back to the office, law firms could also try to use new technology to improve their apprenticeship programs by:

  • enhancing the learning experience;
  • using artificial intelligence and data analytics to provide close supervision of apprentices and to enhance the delivery of programs as part of the learning experience;
  • creating stronger relationships and promoting coordinated support among apprentices and enterprises;
  • monitoring of training through mobile logbooks that allow apprentices to record and demonstrate their learning and training progression.

[i] Dan Packel, “’Our Profession Cannot Long Endure a Remote Work Model,’ Morgan Stanley CLO Tells Law Firms”, http://www.law.com, American Lawyer Media International, July 2021, https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2021/07/16/our-profession-cannot-long-endure-a-remote-work-model-morgan-stanley-clo-tells-law-firms/ (accessed 28 July 2021)

[ii] Andrew Maloney, ‘Most of Morgan Stanley’s Outside Counsel Had Already Pushed For Remote Work’, http://www.law.com, American Lawyer Media International, July 2021, https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2021/07/21/morgan-stanleys-law-firms-have-prepared-for-increased-flexibility/ (accessed 28 July 2021)

[iii] Dan Clark, Phillip Bantz, & Hugo Guzman, ‘Will More Legal Chiefs Follow Morgan Stanley in Eschewing Remote Work?’, http://www.law.com, American Lawyer Media International, July 2021, https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2021/07/19/will-more-legal-chiefs-follow-morgan-stanley-in-eschewing-remote-work/ (accessed 28 July 2021)

Brian Baxter & Ruiqi Chen, ‘Tech Legal Leaders Veer From Morgan Stanley Return-to-Work Order’, news.bloomberglaw.com, Bloomberg, July 2021, https://news.bloomberglaw.com/tech-and-telecom-law/tech-legal-leaders-veer-from-morgan-stanley-return-to-work-order (accessed 28 July 2021)

[iv] Hannah Roberts, ‘Top UK Lawyers Expect U-Turn on Remote Working Policies in Response to Morgan Stanley’, http://www.law.com, American Lawyer Media International, July 2021, https://www.law.com/international-edition/2021/07/21/top-uk-lawyers-expect-u-turn-on-remote-working-policies-in-response-to-morgan-stanley/  (accessed 28 July 2021)

[v] Dan Clark, Phillip Bantz, & Hugo Guzman, ‘Will More Legal Chiefs Follow Morgan Stanley in Eschewing Remote Work?’, http://www.law.com, American Lawyer Media International, July 2021, https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2021/07/19/will-more-legal-chiefs-follow-morgan-stanley-in-eschewing-remote-work/ (accessed 28 July 2021)

[vi] Brian Baxter & Ruiqi Chen, ‘Tech Legal Leaders Veer From Morgan Stanley Return-to-Work Order’, news.bloomberglaw.com, Bloomberg, July 2021, https://news.bloomberglaw.com/tech-and-telecom-law/tech-legal-leaders-veer-from-morgan-stanley-return-to-work-order (accessed 28 July 2021)

[vii] Dan Clark, Phillip Bantz, & Hugo Guzman, ‘Will More Legal Chiefs Follow Morgan Stanley in Eschewing Remote Work?’, http://www.law.com, American Lawyer Media International, July 2021, https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2021/07/19/will-more-legal-chiefs-follow-morgan-stanley-in-eschewing-remote-work/ (accessed 28 July 2021)

[viii] Dan Clark, Phillip Bantz, & Hugo Guzman, ‘Will More Legal Chiefs Follow Morgan Stanley in Eschewing Remote Work?’, http://www.law.com, American Lawyer Media International, July 2021, https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2021/07/19/will-more-legal-chiefs-follow-morgan-stanley-in-eschewing-remote-work/ (accessed 28 July 2021)

Published by Hughes Castell

Asia's Premier Firm for Global Legal, Compliance, Risk and Regulatory Executive Search

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