'Remote work prevented us from performing at our sharpest': Houston lawyer endorses office returns amid Delta variant fears

John Zavitsanos said his firm suffered under the conditions of remote working while reopening its office led it to have its 'best year ever'

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The managing partner of a Houston law firm has joined the remote working debate by proclaiming the benefits of keeping his office open throughout the Covid-19 pandemic while rival firms closed their doors.

Writing in the New York Times, John Zavitsanos, co-founder and managing partner of Ahmad Zavitsanos Anaipakos Alavi & Mensing, said his firm’s productivity plummeted at the onset of the pandemic when stay-at-home orders were handed down across the US. 

He argued that his lawyers and staff ‘never matched the team creativity and production we had taken for granted at our office’. The ‘distracted and anxious’ behaviours and lack of engagement on behalf of his team during Zoom meetings led the firm to reopen its office just five weeks later. 

‘While lawyers at other Houston law firms claimed to be happy with remote work, I believe it prevented us from performing at our sharpest,’ he wrote, adding that working from home can ‘drain morale and diminish collegiality’. 

The decision to reopen its doors in the early stages of the pandemic paid off, he explained, as it led the firm to have its ‘best year ever’ in terms of growth. Its revenues jumped 39% and it added eight new lawyers and 75 clients in 2020 without cutting staff or salaries nor instituting furloughs. 

Zavitsanos’ arguments echo some of the points made by Morgan Stanley’s chief legal officer, Eric Grossman in a letter to law firms released earlier this month, when he decried the ‘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. 

A number of firms, however, have already elected to incorporate remote working into their long-term business strategies as the world begins to reopen. 

In the UK, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Allen & Overy are all opting to give lawyers the flexibility to spend up to 40% of their time at home, while regional firm TLT threw out an office return date altogether by introducing a ‘fully flexible’ working plan that will allow its lawyers and staff to work from wherever suits them best depending on their role. 

UK listed firm Ince is an example of a firm suffering from the repercussions of office closures, as it recently recorded a 59% fall in operating profit for the past financial year after incurring a series of ‘non-underlying Covid-19 related costs, including £3.2m associated with the permanent closure of one of the two floors of its London headquarters. 

Adrian Biles, Ince’s chief executive, said the closures had ‘undoubtedly hindered the development of the business in acquiring new clients and freely interacting with existing clients’ as well as ‘the interactions between colleagues from which business ideas and opportunities arise and the very important development of our trainee and junior lawyers’.

Firms may need to remain flexible as they bring their employees back to their premises, however, as the infectious Delta variant and changing  Covid-19 guidelines in the US appear to be throwing yet another spanner into the works for those targeting September office return dates. 

“Just because Covid-19 isn’t as deadly as it once was, that doesn’t mean we can take it any less seriously,” Adam Kemper, a partner at Kelley Kronenberg, told Bloomberg Law

“A lot of people were trying to get that feeling back to pre-pandemic in the workplace. I don’t think we’re going to get there.”

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