BigLaw firm pulls in reins in on remote work

Mandates three days attorneys must be in office 

By Pat Murphy
BridgeTower Media Newswires 

BOSTON — A Boston law firm’s recent decision to mandate in-office attendance on designated days of the work week signals that some in the legal industry are rethinking their continuing embrace of remote work models initially adopted in response to the exigencies of the pandemic.

In September, Ropes & Gray informed its attorneys that they must be in the office on “anchor days” of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

As reported by the ABA Journal, the new policy went into effect on Oct. 3. Under the firm’s prior policy, lawyers were expected to work in the office at least three days a week but were given the discretion to choose the particular days for in-person attendance.

In an internal memorandum, Ropes & Gray Chair Julie H. Jones explained the reasoning behind the change in policy.

“We have been reflecting on the benefits of having lawyers in the office at least three days a week, and we’re seeing that a more coordinated schedule, with maximum overlap amongst colleagues, is key to creating the experiences that build connections,” Jones wrote.

“We know that the office experience has been lacking in part because our office communities do not yet have critical mass, and because we need to do a better job maximizing the quality of our time together,” she added.

In terms of deciding which days would be designated anchor days, Jones wrote that Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were the days with the highest level of attendance in the firm’s 12 offices during the preceding six-month period.

“We expect to see you in on those days, absent client and business development needs, or occasional conflicts that arise in the lives of all professionals,” Jones wrote.

Wellesley Hills attorney Sheryl J. Dennis doesn’t want to say she told you so, but …

“If what [Ropes & Gray] was doing was working, they wouldn’t have changed it,” says Dennis, a founding partner at nine-attorney Fields & Dennis.

Dennis has long been a skeptic of the sustainability of the remote working model for the law firm environment, telling Lawyers Weekly in a September 2020 interview that her firm was experiencing mixed results with working from home, with some of the firm’s attorneys not being as productive in terms of billings or meeting client expectations.

She remains skeptical two years later.

“I still don’t think it works too well,” Dennis says. “Part of the reason is capturing time. I don’t think people are actually capturing the time that they are working when they are working from home because they are not as focused.”

To Dennis, it seems that some attorneys have become more “lackadaisical” in their work habits as a result of being able to work from home on a more or less regular basis. According to Dennis, now most of the attorneys at her firm are in the office at least four to five days a week.

“If you are in the office, you are much more invested in the firm itself and the people around you,” Dennis says.

“It really is past time for people to get back in the office,” she adds. “It’s like ‘Casual Friday’ turned into an ‘Always Casual’ kind of thing. To some people, it’s almost gotten to the point where it’s a ‘right’ to work from home.”

But not everyone agrees with that assessment.

From the start, Boston lawyer Eric J. Parker didn’t think weekly work schedules would return to their pre-pandemic practices — and he still doesn’t.

“There is simply too much evidence, having now been forced to ‘stress test’ the concept, that a hybrid work schedule does in fact work for many firms, and that those firms who saw positive results would continue to support hybrid work schedules,” says Parker, who points to his own firm, Parker Scheer, as an example.

Even so, Parker says he’s not surprised that there are firms actively working to return to pre-pandemic work schedules.

“Law firms, and Boston law firms in particular, are not known for embracing change,” he says. “Change is scary. But those who manage law firms with an eye on improving efficiency and retention should recognize that the adoption of hybrid work schedules has probably done more to equalize the often-insurmountable challenges that women with small children and dual working couples face each and every week.”

Hybrid work schedules have offered those with young children and others with domestic obligations a more rational means of balancing work and personal responsibilities, “for their own benefit and most certainly the benefit of the firm at large,” Parker says.