Big Law’s hybrid future will rely on honor system, for now

Posted July 16th, 2021.

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By David Thomas

(Reuters) – Some law firms have gotten creative in bringing lawyers back into the office after more than a year of remote work, with approaches ranging from dedicated days to expectations that attorneys will spend “the majority” of their time at the office.

But how are the firms, with hundreds of lawyers and staff spread across cities, supposed to make sense of all those schedules and ensure attorneys stick to the script?

Easy, according to some U.S. law firm leaders: Just trust them.

“It’s about the culture you want to create in the firm,” said David Sanford, chairman and co-founder of Sanford Heisler Sharp. “If you want a culture where people feel monitored and surveilled, there are ways of doing that. If you want a culture that expects people to do what they need to do as professionals, there are ways of doing that. We would prefer the latter.”

Starting on Sept. 9, Sanford’s 50-lawyer, plaintiffs’-side employment firm is requiring managing partners, staff, and less-experienced attorneys to be present on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, as well as either Monday or Friday of that week. Experienced attorneys have to be in the office at least two or three days a week, including Wednesdays, which are mandatory.

Baker & Hostetler, with nearly 1,000 lawyers and 17 offices, aims to fully re-open its offices in September after it began a limited return on Monday, firm chairman Paul Schmidt said.

But even in the fall, the firm will not be “overly prescriptive” about when attorneys have to be back in the office, Schmidt said.

“We believe our people are professionals. We are encouraging them to be in the office and telling them, look, your job requires you to be in the office,” Schmidt said. “But we don’t necessarily need to tell you what your office hours are, how often you need to be in the office.”

Perkins Coie’s chief talent officer Jennifer Bluestein said in a statement that the firm expects to return to in-office work on Oct. 4 “with new hybrid workplace policies that embrace the needs of our people and the success of remote work in place at that time.” Perkins Coie will rely on an honor system as well, Bluestein said.

Davis, Polk & Wardwell is expecting its lawyers to be in the office at least seven out of every 10 business days, starting on Sept. 13. According to an internal memo reviewed by Reuters, Davis Polk said “there is no requirement to pre-clear your specific in-office days. We are all on the honor system.”

Dechert also signaled an honor system approach when it unveiled its “flexible hybrid model” in May. In that memo, firm chair Andrew Levander and CEO Henry Nassau said, “We trust you to choose where and how to work based on your needs, your family, your team and your clients.”

Most law firms will take a similar approach initially, said Zeughauser Group consultant Kent Zimmermann, adding that firms are trying to balance the benefits of remote and in-person work while operating in an intensely competitive lateral market.

“Some people who aren’t vaccinated or just prefer to work from home, they might go to a firm that’s going to let them do that. Firms are short-staffed on the transactional side,” Zimmermann said.

Law firm leaders and consultants both emphasized the importance of flexibility, which could be hard to achieve alongside a strict system for tracking in-person hours.

They also took note of the highly contagious Delta COVID-19 variant, which has become the dominant strain worldwide, U.S. officials said Friday.

“We don’t know what life will look like in the fall or winter, what the situation will look with in-person education, what it will mean for parents,” Sanford said. “There are a lot of questions.”

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