19 Jul 2021

Morgan Stanley legal chief decries ‘lack of urgency’ from lawyers to return to office

Letter to law firms warns of threat to client service posed by the profession's drive to embrace remote working

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Morgan Stanley’s chief legal officer, Eric Grossman, has warned that law firms that maintain remote working practices instead of returning to the office will be at a disadvantage.

In a letter to law firms last Thursday (15 July), which was obtained by Law.com, Grossman complained about a ‘lack of urgency’ among lawyers to return to the office.  

'As we are already largely back in the office at Morgan Stanley, it is now clear to me that a hybrid meeting of live participants and Zoom participants is challenging at best,' the letter stated, adding that as a 'general rule' Morgan Stanley would not facilitate the use of Zoom for ‘critical’ meetings although it would deploy some of the technology innovations that the pandemic has driven.

Grossman explained that he feared that in the long run the firm apprenticeship model required young lawyers to work together physically.

The letter comes as a procession of law firms set out plans to embed flexible working into their post-Covid planning and underlines the tightrope these highly profitable businesses must walk if they are to meet the expectations of their lawyers while also maintaining high levels of client service.

This dynamic is further complicated by the fact that several GCs are pressuring their panel firms to improve their diversity and inclusion credentials, with remote and flexible working being regarded as a key means of achieving this.

Back in April, Vodafone said it selected its refreshed legal panel on those firms’ commitments to improving diversity. UK magic circle firm Slaughter & May, which is one of Vodafone’s panel firms, this month unveiled a trio of part-time working programmes to support more sustainable working practices for its lawyers.

Obelisk Support CEO Dana Denis-Smith, a leading campaigner for greater diversity in the profession, responded to Grossman's letter by warning of the downsides of a return to pre-Covid working practices.

'You cannot create an inclusive culture by taking a one rule fits all approach,' she wrote on LinkedIn. '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. It’s a way of shutting huge numbers of talented people out, again.'

A readers’ poll conducted by GLP in February, found that 77% of the 98 respondents expected a slight (45%) or substantial (32%) shift to home-working once lockdown ends. Nearly as many (69%) said they believed this change would improve work life balance with 50% believing it will boost productivity. Some 46% of the respondents believed the productivity of associates had deteriorated during lockdown.

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