"Come on in, it's perfectly safe once you get here."
Firms are pressuring lawyers to return to work while paying lip service to government guidelines, RollOnFriday has found.
Last week, against a background of soaring Covid infections in the UK, the government announced that people should "work from home where possible". But certain law firms have made clear in their communications with staff that their preference is for lawyers to come to the office regardless.
In an email leaked to RollOnFriday from Sullivan & Cromwell, London Managing Partner Richard Pollack and partner Craig Jones told staff they had "listened carefully" to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's statement and press conference.
But despite listening carefully, they claimed in the email that "on both occasions he announced that people would no longer be encouraged to attend the workplace if they can work from home".
In fact, rather than merely announcing the end of the back-to-the-office campaign, Johnson announced a positive stay-at-home message, stating that "we are once again asking office workers who can work from home to do so".
Pollack and Jones continued that "at the moment, however, the Government's guidance that underpins our COVID-19 Secure guidelines has not been changed and there is no restriction on office working if the workplace is COVID-19 Secure".
"In addition," they said, "it was clear that the approach [Johnson] outlined today anticipated a more liberal regime than the regime in place prior to August".
A solicitor at the US firm told RollOnFriday that, if that was how management interpreted government advice, it was difficult to imagine that the firm would be sympathetic to people who wanted to work from home.
At the beginning of September Sullivan & Cromwell enforced a mandatory return to work in London for anyone without an underlying health condition or other "valid excuse", according to a source. The day before the new direction was announced by the government, Pollack emailed staff to soften that approach, stating that due to the rising infection rate in London, "anyone who is uncomfortable continuing to come to the office at this stage may now work from home".
But a day later, Pollack and Jones claimed that "since reopening the office fully" a "number of people have made clear to us" that at home "they were not able to work as effectively or efficiently as when they are in the office, or they found that certain aspects could not be carried out remotely".
"That feedback reflects our own experiences", said the partners.
A Sullivan & Cromwell lawyer told RollOnFriday that on the weekly Zoom call, partners "all had their cameras on and everyone could see they were at the office".
An insider said the emails left Sullivan & Cromwell lawyers in no doubt that they will earn black marks if they stay away. "It goes against the spirit of the guidance", said a Sullivan & Cromwell solicitor, "which is to work from home where possible".
Comments from lawyers and law firm staff on RollOnFriday indicate that S&C is not alone, and that plenty of firms have upgraded their obsession with facetime to the Covid-ready version - facemasktime.
"My Magic Circle firm thinks that being in together is good for the culture", said one employee. "I can see merit in that argument if in fact we had a good culture. But actually I prefer to be away from the toxicity of the partners and just get my work done at home".
"My firm's 'voluntary' is bracketed in language which makes it sound a lot more like 'compulsory'", said another law firm employee.
Partners have been tasked with leading the drive, said staff, like John Gummers forced to make their children eat beefburgers to prove they're safe from mad cow disease. "My firm is saying one thing officially and telling the partners another thing behind the scenes (be in the office so your teams will follow)", said a law firm employee.
"There are partners at my firm who are coming in every day and sitting around apparently doing sweet FA", said a law firm employee. "I’ve heard that they’ve been told to come in and lead by example, and to coerce the proles into getting back to their desks... none of it in writing of course".
Off-the-books 'hints' appear to be widespread. A person claiming to work at a Silver Circle firm said office attendance was presented as voluntary, "but staff in our team are under no illusion, given comments made by the head of the team".
The "official line is don't come in", said another law firm employee, but the "unofficial and unwritten line is 'come in or else'"
Chin up though. As another observer pointed out, "I don't know what they're worried about. We've got a world beating track and trace system coming in 2023. We'll be fine".