Manhattan law firms watch Wall Street lead on office returns

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Wall Street banks and the law firms advising them are pushing for employees to return to the office.

Financial institutions like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse are increasingly expecting their employees to come in most of the week, lifting Covid-19 protocols and other barriers to full-time in-person work . Most major law firms in New York are sticking to the required three days of in-office work, at least for now, with the exception of a few totally remote outliers.

“It wouldn’t shock me if law firms’ office presence policies aligned more with those of their clients and office presence requirements increased from what they are now,” Neil said. Barr, president and managing partner of Davis Polk & Wardwell. “But that’s more predictive for the industry than a reflection of whatever we’re thinking about right now.”

Davis Polk was one of the first Wall Street firms to bring back its attorneys, requiring employees to be in the office at least three days a week.

Companies vary in how rigorously they monitor employee schedules. It remains to be seen whether lawyers will face any consequences for not showing up, especially given the impending recession and growing rumors of layoffs, said Stephanie Biderman, a partner at legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how companies apply the return to the office in the coming months,” Biderman said.

“Carrot vs. Stick”

Davis Polk began bringing employees back to its Midtown Manhattan headquarters about a year ago, with a handful of trial periods and different setups, Barr said.

The elite law firm, which has posted record profits for the past two years, has finally managed to bring in its lawyers and business staff from Tuesday to Thursday.

“In the context of what we’re coming out of, I think it’s going really well,” Barr said. “It’s not perfect, but the feedback we’re getting is extremely strong.”

“We’re able to observe a lot more through positive professional interactions about training, about mentoring, and frankly, about job enjoyment,” Barr said.

New York-based companies have mostly taken a similar approach. Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson; Milbank; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; and Shearman & Sterling all ask their lawyers to come in Tuesday through Thursday.

“We wanted to do this by thinking about how we adapt it to the needs of the business, but also by providing flexibility in a constructive way,” said Geline Midouin, Shearman’s chief human resources officer.

Shearman, like most New York businesses, has employees who commute from all over the tri-state area, she said. “Being able to know you have to be in the office on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday almost guarantees you’ll have people in the office,” she said.

According to Kastle’s Return to Work Barometer, the legal workforce is regularly returning to the office at a higher rate than others. The tool tracks the anonymous activity of 341,000 unique credential holders in major cities, including nearly 32,000 in the legal industry.

The average office occupancy for law firms nationwide was 60.7% for the week of September 21, compared to 47.3% average occupancy for all other industries for this week, marking the level highest occupancy since the start of the pandemic.

New York law firms had an average occupancy rate of 52.8% in the same week, lower than Chicago and Houston, but ahead of Washington firms. Law firms were also slightly ahead of all other industries in the Big Apple, which averaged 46.1% occupancy during the week.

“In New York, we all live with [coronavirus] now,” Biderman said.

Shearman encourages employees to come into the office by offering networking and training opportunities, including a happy hour for all associates, in-person mentoring circles, and live yoga and meditation sessions.

“We’re more carrot-focused than stick-focused and really thinking about how we can help our people get back into the market,” she said.

But the firm also expects lawyers to show up more than three days a week when needed to serve clients.

“There are times in our industry where, depending on where we are in terms of the case cycle, you have to come in five days a week,” she said. “You can’t be so rigid with the three days a week at the expense of customers or the type of work you do.”

Market tightening

One of the main concerns of law firm leaders has been the training and development of young lawyers who have worked remotely for all or most of their careers.

“We were starting to worry about that,” Barr said. “That was one of the reasons we were so focused on getting people back.”

Barr said Davis Polk developed additional support training for new associate classes that were fully remote. Beyond developing legal skills, aspiring lawyers must learn how to interact with each other in a professional setting, he said.

“Walking down the hall and asking someone how to do it or having to do it face to face rather than with a Zoom camera is a skill set that needs to be developed,” he said.

Return-to-office plans are held in the shadow of rumors of layoffs at several major law firms. Many companies that hired at a record pace in 2021 to meet market demands are now seeing a slowdown in work.

Talking about discounts and reviewing invoices can keep people coming back to the office.

The partners want to see junior attorneys and other associates proactively take advantage of opportunities to make up for their lack of training over the past few years, said Jennifer Coffey, a New York-based legal recruiter for Macrae. Showing up in person can be a big indicator for partners that these attorneys are committed to getting up to speed.

“When associates start seeing their peers fired for performance reasons, they tend to double down on their jobs rather than look for another job,” Coffey said.

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