Morgan Stanley’s CLO says remote working threatens client service, but many disagree. Crafty Counsel community members share their insights.

Morgan Stanley’s Chief Legal Officer, Eric Grossman, issued a memo to law firms last week in which he says that firms that return to offices will have a “significant” advantage over firms that follow a remote first model.

The memo, which says that Zoom meetings will not be accommodated for “critical meetings” by the bank, was met with strong reactions on social media with some commentators supporting the idea of working from the office for some days of the week, while others termed this “backwards thinking”.

We asked for responses to the memo from some members of the Crafty Counsel community.

Xavier Langlois, General Counsel at Beamery says that it “disappointing to see that some leaders in the legal profession have learnt nothing from the pandemic. As a society and profession we’ve made huge strides in the past 18 months.”

“ We’ve never been more inclusive, agile, innovative and ‘together’, and yet some would rather revert to what they know and pretend like it never happened? Out of fear? It certainly screams micro management to me.”

He asks: “Why does it matter where your external counsel works from?”

“There is nothing to suggest that law firm output/quality of work has declined in the past 18 months – if that’s how they treat their outside counsel, I truly feel sorry for their in-house legal teams. Sounds like some DE&I training would not come amiss!”

Jane Clemetson, lawyer and founder of Jane Clemetson limited, says that she “loved working from the office.” She says “as an in-house lawyer it was much easier to find out what was going on in the business by chatting with non-lawyer colleagues – and lawyer colleagues also. I’d have been ok with 4 days in the office and one working from home.”

Clemetson says some meetings are better in-person. “As a client there are, in my opinion, certain meetings that are much better done face to face rather than by Zoom if possible eg large heavy-duty negotiations, with a cast of thousands, where I would like my outside lawyers to be there in person with me – but that doesn’t mean they have to be at the office the rest of the time. “

For Catie Sheret, General Counsel for Cambridge University Press, the approach taken by Grossman “risks driving law firms back to rigid ways of working and rowing back from some of the significant benefits that a more flexible approach to work (both location and hours) offers.”

“ There are challenges around making what is referred to as the ‘apprenticeship model’ work in a remote or hybrid environment, but those are not insurmountable. The firms that will thrive are the ones that develop and support their people effectively, wherever they are located or whichever hours they work.”

In April a Thomson Reuters survey found that two thirds of lawyers said that remote working had a positive impact on their health. According to the survey 86% of lawyers in the UK would like to change the way they work in the future, while the global average is 77%.

The survey found that 42% of firm partners in the UK believe working practices were improved by remote working, while only eight % of UK partners claimed that remote work led to working practices deteriorating.

Nick White, IPM Consultant and Patent Attorney with Tangible IP says “having worked in multinationals and a number of international IP firms at executive and partner level the notion that office centric is an imperative or better is just ludicrous”

“ I have worked efficiently in and with remote and virtual teams for 25 years and that includes staff development. Whether it works or not is a mindset issue.”

“Getting together is good and sometimes may be the most efficient cost/effective solution but in many situations it’s the exact opposite. Deciding to opt for one exclusively on an almost ideological basis is likely to limit and not enhance quality.”

This memo comes in the wake of the UK’s so-called “Freedom Day” (19 July 2021), which has seen most Covid-19 restrictions lifted. Restrictions limiting the number of people who can meet in doors have been lifted, which includes the workplace.

Employers, including law firms, are grappling with what the future of work will look like and many are considering hybrid models, which include some days in the office and some working remotely.

Diversity campaigner Dana Denis-Smith, who is the chief executive officer of Obelisk Support, responded to the memo by saying that a “one rule fits all approach” does not support creating an “inclusive culture”.

“Whatever the explanation, this type of statement will not help address many underlying issues in the profession and will re-embed a culture that has not worked for many for decades,” she said on LinkedIn.

“It’s a way of shutting huge numbers of talented people out, again.”

Amritpal Gill, an IT consultant who works with legal clients says that many of his clients still expect those “who need to earn their stripes to come into the office”.

Roberta Liebenberg and Stephanie Scharf, in an article for Law360, write that hybrid working is essential for gender parity:

“Female lawyers, who are much more likely to be responsible for children and family care, greatly prefer options for remote working.”

Crafty Counsel works remotely with no immediate plans to return to the office and Zoom meetings will be an essential part of the working strategy for some time to come.

Gary Jones of Totum Partners produced a lyrical video on the freedoms the conferencing tool, Zoom, has offered to users during the pandemic.