man reaching for woman

"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".

Tip Off ROF

Comments

Paper Cuts 02 October 20 08:23

In the early 1990s, I absolutely needed to go to the office to do my job:

1. My files were made of "paper" and were contained in "slings" in a metal "filing cabinet".

2. Additional paper documents were added to the paper file in reverse chronological order by a "secretary".

3. My telephone was a large square thing which only worked on my desk.

4. Ditto my computer - it was very heavy and not suitable for carrying around.

5. If I wished to do research, I went downstairs to our large "library" (a room full of books, kids).  I knew a fair bit about the Dewey Decimal system.  We had access to closed databases, only accessible from selected terminals in the office.  Searching such systems required one to be adept in Boolean logic.  If I was stuck, I spoke with our "librarians".

6. If a colleague wished to send me a written message, their secretary typed it on a piece of paper and the internal post room people regularly ran around with a trolley full of internal paper envelopes which contined all such missives.

7. After work, when I wished to return to my manor, I spoke to the firm's ostler, who saddled up my horse for me, in the firm's stables.

I started using e-mail in 1994; and, from c. 1999, here's the position re the 7 limitations noted above:

1. All in the cloud.

2. Software files e-mails and documents automatically.

3 and 4.  Given that I favour Blackberries and Cosmo Communicators and that I regularly make telephone calls using my laptop, such devices have now mostly merged into a single portable device which works from pretty-much anywhere.

5.  PLC and Google plus personal soft-copy precedents.  All online.

6.  Text, e-mail, data-rooms.  All online.

7.  I in fact used the Central Line to Lancaster Gate.

The office-addicts will bleat on about the "creativity of the water-cooler moments" and about the need to "manage the staff".  All b/s, especially for lawyers.  We already know the answers and we're not paid to be "creative"; we're paid to follow precedent, have a sharp eye for detail, and get on with our work.  As confident (and occasionally overbearing) professionals, we manage ourselves and our workload and need managers in the same way that fish need bicycles.

Offices for lawyers are obsolete and anyone who thinks differently needs to get off their horse and to (at least) get into the 20th century.  In 20 years time, we can introduce the blinkered fools to
the 21st century.

Sumoking 02 October 20 08:23

Do they know that this kind of panicked rush to get staff into the office just screams "we're shit at managing and worried our previously marketed, absolute machine workforce won't be doing any work if they are not sat in front of their boss in the office"

They should really learn to suck up the paranoia for a couple of months instead of making their brand look completely old and weak 

Macawbre 02 October 20 08:36

Useless old dinosaurs thinking they’re in a position to advise businesses in this day and age. 
Go retire Boomers. Your day has come and gone. 

Wasting time 02 October 20 08:50

Those demanding a return to the office are likely to be control freaks with no clients who think they are adding value by having dozens of pointless internal meetings every day.

Covid has been a nightmare for such people who have had to face up to the fact that they add nothing of value at all. 

Anonymous 02 October 20 08:52

Best thing - no f*cking open plan. IM's London office was like a train station - now I have my own private waiting room. Now I just need clients who pay their bills...

Anon 02 October 20 09:23

Incredible that these dinosaurs who “run” these large firms are so utterly naive when it comes to social media, PR and legal websites like this one.   Obviously this news was going to break and in a very damaging way for the firm.   It is of course a bad decision to make people go back to the office when clearly it’s not market practice.  

Anon 02 October 20 09:28

If anyone gets ill or worse, you can see the claims rolling in.  How on earth does this firm’s policy discharge their duty to take reasonable care for their employees’ safety?  It’s an atrocious decision.
 

I suspect it’s driven by the fact that these  dinosaurs can’t cope without the power trip and status they get from prancing pariahs their offices beasting and bullying their staff and they can’t do this easily from home so they need to return to the office.  Also, they have to actually see their families and children at home - not something they bargained for when selling their soul for money,  or that they ever thought they would have to do.  

Anonymous 02 October 20 09:35

Paper Cuts - Nice post but you know exactly what you are doing and, likely, have deep and established social networks.

Its a different for juniors and new joiners. Of the last trainee intake I literally have never met 2/3 of them face to face.

They may well not want to come in but it difficult to see how they can be easily integrated into the team and helped to develop into the lawyers of the future over a Zoom call. 

Obviously some people shouldn't come it (e.g. those shielding or who have cohabitants shielding can only make it in on the tube). For the rest, remote working may be a short sighted decision.

Anon 02 October 20 09:38

@paper Cuts

 

"As confident (and occasionally overbearing) professionals"

Only occasionally?

Anon 02 October 20 09:44

Some of the partners I know are not taking public transport.  They are driving into London  or they live close enough to the office to walk.  If you’re a trainee / junior associate living further out you cannot afford to drive in, so you’re expected to get on the train and take all the risk.

Ploddicus-solicitorus-extintcus-rex 02 October 20 09:56

I miss the days when I would walk into my oak panelled office, which was a huge room, replete with sofa and drinks cabinet, and en suite facilities, at about 10.30am after breakfasting at the club.  I’d light up a cigar and put my feet up on my desk and use a tape recorder to dictate some letters and then make a call to the solicitor on the other side to politely remind him, off the record, that his client’s defence is due tomorrow and he might want to serve it in time (he thanked me and I got a case of claret on the post the next day).
 

Then I would think about turning on the strange contraption in the corner (“a computer” I think it was called) but none of the other partners used them let alone “email” and my three secretaries were all attractive so I liked at least one of them to come in and talk to me whilst I amended their typed letters anyway.   Ah, then it’s back to the club for lunch with a client, half a bottle of club claret, a cigar in the smoking room during which in an embarrassing moment I quietly hand over an envelope which contains my bill for the work done recently.   Then it’s back to the office around 3, partners meeting, at which we mock the one non Oxbridge chap, before a sleep, then I’d review some documents.  A call would come in from a client wanting to instruct us on a major transaction.     Then I’d walk the corridors making sure everyone was head down, working, chained to their desks, and jackets on chairs, and I’d dump the documents for the new piece on an assistant solicitor’s desk making it clear the draft was needed to on my desk by 9am.  Nip out to catch the train  for my Oxford college reunion.  Didn’t have a blackberry to switch off.  Went into the smoking carriage and looked forward to a night of the good old days where nothing ever changed. 
 

Those were the days.  

wasteland 02 October 20 10:06

Let's all stay at home and watch as the cities quickly turn into some post apocalyptic wasteland and we can all be smug and not care about the millions of jobs trashed so that overconfident and overpaid city lawyers can carry on as they please. 

Anon 02 October 20 10:29

@ wasteland

No one is saying it is fair that lawyers and others can work from home.  The factual point is the more people on trains the higher the R rate will become. So only those who need to be in the City should go in over the next couple of weeks.  Adding non-essential staff raises the risk of infection for essential staff.

A moralistic Charge of the Light Brigade back into work to show solidarity for those who are struggling will make things worse at the moment.

Mayer White 02 October 20 10:39

Sounds awfully similar to our MB Corporate colleague's experience. Management say one thing, partners push another.

Deluded 02 October 20 12:22

2019: "I need to earn £140k because the cost of living in London is so high"

2020: "It is unreasonable to expect me to work from the office in London.  I'm going to stay in Ipswich/Suffolk/Kent and expect to earn exactly as much."

2021:  "City law firms reduce salaries to reflect collapse of the City of London"

@Anonymous 02 October 20 12:59

@Anonymous 12:12 - becuase the average 25-40 year old city lawyer sees a granny so often?

Sense of perspective 02 October 20 13:12

20,000 Amazon workers in the US have had Covid.  

Sullivan & Cromwell is merely reflecting US working culture, albeit clad in white shoe privilege.  

It is fine for people to sneer and mock the partners but, ultimately, do you really think they have that much power when dealing with Fortune 500 execs and PE managers? 

Anonymous 02 October 20 13:25

It must be hard to be expected to work in a grade A office in return for high London salary packages... bet you're expected to wear a suit as well. Those horrible partner buggers. 

Anonymous 02 October 20 14:02

The problem with this sort of thing is that everyone has an opinion about working from home, everyone thinks their own opinion is not just correct but in fact the only opinion that could ever reasonably be had, and then projects that opinion onto everyone else. 

My own opinion is that working from home has gone very well and I am more productive now that I don’t waste hours every day commuting using transport that was generally already disgusting in a pre-COVID world, leaving aside the obvious currently increased risk. I don’t have kids, I have space in my home to work and I’m IT literate, so I accept that my opinion will not be shared by everyone. Nevertheless, it works for me and hey, we can all have a different view.

But’s that the whole flexible working debate. This is different. Where I draw the line is employers, or certain persons at such employers, thinking that they and/or their firm’s culture / their distrusting of employees / their inability to use their computer / their total reliance on a industrial-scale printer / their dislike of being at home with family / their having bet the wrong way on the central London property market etc etc etc is somehow more important than everyone else and their health.

We lawyers are well known for our arrogance, and generally it slides, but where this involves health issues and concerns for everyone else this is one occasion where it needs to be called out - follow the rules, don’t bend the guidance to suit, you are not more important than everyone else.

Pulp - you know the song 02 October 20 15:44

@Anonymous 02 October 20 12:59 - this might come as a shock from your ivory tower but in the real world generations of a family living together is normal

 

Anonymous 02 October 20 20:27

What's reassuring is that we likely have about another five years left of this bullshi*. The next generation of clients won't care about suits or offices or the imaginary notion of prestige. They'll choose to work with those firms who employ the best technologies to solve their problems.

Junior Lawyer 02 October 20 20:30

Typical griping from the griping middle-aged crowd who sadly now make up RoF's core demographic. I don't know a single young lawyer who doesn't want to get back to the office, and in fact most of my friends who've just started TCs at various firms have requested special dispensation to work in the office rather than from home. I know of one (American) firm where all but four trainees have requested and received this dispensation, albeit most aren't going into the office every day.

Look, if your job is mediocre and poorly paid and your life now revolves around your kids and your membership of the Rotary Club - good on you. Go and work from home for the rest of your life, and enjoy doing your Zoom calls from your semi-detached house in Hitchin or Billericay. But don't destroy the training, personal development, social interaction and professional interaction of an entire generation. Young professionals want to live in cities, to interact on a human level with other young professionals, to learn on the job and to at least have the chance to see whether they enjoy this mode of life.

Anonymous 02 October 20 23:30

Junior Lawyer,

It may have escaped your (evidently precious) attention, but we are -- at least at the present time -- living through a global pandemic. You will shortly discover that there's more to life than commuting into EC2, being mortgaged to the hills, sending your children to private school, and leasing a fancy car. Reach beyond your (ultimately hopeless) material wants and recognise that you're just a lawyer. On the basis that you're (clearly) working from home, it's obvious to me -- and indeed everybody else here -- that you're not already working for one of the premium outfits. If you're older than 25, forget it. So accept this situation for what it is, and don't blame those before you for your current anguish. The problem with your generation is that you're all so f***ing needy. The sooner you grow up, the sooner you'll realise something close to happiness.

Yours,

Senior Lawyer

Anonymous 03 October 20 00:09

Senior lawyer @ 23.30

 

Hilt. The expression is mortgaged to the hilt. Not hills. 

Anonymous 03 October 20 00:34

You'll forgive me for that typo. My old, tired eyes can't cope with all these Zoom meetings.

Mid-Level Lawyer 03 October 20 08:30

Junior Lawyer,

Interactions with your colleagues are severely overrated.  Your peers will be fighting you for qualification spots and have egos the size of Jupiter, and your bosses...well, you’ve seen Senior Lawyer’s post.  As for having a life revolving around your kids, that’s a much happier life than being Senior Lawyer’s personal property in exchange for $$$.

Senior Lawyer,

I see time has not been kind to you.  Have you considered a career change?  Perhaps something to do with engagement with youth?  I understand you have issues with entitlement, having built your career through major hurdles like low to zero tuition fees and EU membership.  As someone who has had to advise traumatised trainees who have been let go during this crisis and seen their careers collapse, often through little fault of their own, I suggest some recognition of your privileged position as a Senior Lawyer could go a long way.

Yours,

Mid-Level Lawyer

Anonymous 03 October 20 11:01

Mid-Level Lawyer,

Time isn't kind to anybody, my mid-level friend:

1706, 1709, 1772, 1812, 1857, 1867, 1873, 1919, 1930, 1956, 1961, 1973, 1975, 1980, 1990, 2008.

This is your first recession. There have been many before it, and there will be many more to come. The trauma you describe, while regrettable, is not unique.

There are always winners and there always losers. Zero tuition fees and EU membership or not, nothing ever really changes - not really.

Yours,

Senior Lawyer

ED 03 October 20 22:34

Most people who read ROF are at next to no risk from COVID. So some of the bleating is a bit OTT. 

Anon 04 October 20 08:32

Ed - on what basis are making that comment? Have you completed a poll on RoF readers? Or are you a clairvoyant, if so what are the lottery numbers for Tuesday?

anon 04 October 20 09:23

“Most people who read ROF are at next to no risk from COVID”. 
 

What about their parents, grandparents and elderly or infirm relatives? 

Anonymous 04 October 20 13:34

Paper Cuts @ 02 October 20 08:23

All 25 sacked librarians and ostlers will continue to downvote you until you at least reinstate the stables. 

Anonymous 04 October 20 20:17

Junior Lawyer @ 02 October 20 20:30

I am puzzled. I hear the young generation is fully digital, and prefer digital to analogue. And yet you tell us all you prefer to meet in person rather than over Zoom/Teams? I have training responsibilities for two of our junior colleagues and therefore would like to understand more. So far we do WFH with plenty of digital meetings.

 

Fake Partner 05 October 20 03:32

Sounds like my firm in the US. But then we are run by a dictator who prints out every e-mail he gets on paper. 

Anon 05 October 20 09:49

To Anon 0903 - yes spot on.  That’s the point. Many young people only think of themselves and are throughly selfish when it comes to this virus.  

anon 05 October 20 10:15

@ young lawyer 

“Look, if your job is mediocre and poorly paid and your life now revolves around your kids...”

What an utterly unpleasant thing to say.  Yes, when you have a family and are a grown up, regardless of how much you earn, children are indeed important.  One day, when you become an adult, you may learn this. You will alps learn it is far more important than the glib superficiality of spending money on overpriced cocktails after work to the point you throw up,  shouting to be heard above the din of w****ers like you wearing Hackett rugby shirts in sweaty, Covid infested crowded Fulham bars boasting about how at 24 they are “leading” on deals and “are going to make partner”, and “yar, yar, the equity starts at £1.1mzzz)  before waking up the next morning to nurse a hangover over a £25 cooked breakfast in some converted wharf building in Shoreditch with avocado on something and sausages made from hand reared miniature special pigs on the Isle of Skye, washed down with flat whites whilst you talk up the night before before heading back to your flat share with a guy from Foxtons, another junior non entity lawyer like you and some girl who did media at Birmingham and thinks you’re all utter c***s and who would never dream of sleeping with any of you.  I know which life I would choose.  
 

 

Anonymous 06 October 20 09:00

Your resident PA perspective here.  (maybe I should give myself a fancy nickname so you can all recognise me).  

I really feel for the new trainees and NQs right now, in the same way I feel for those just going to Uni.  But the reality here is that your training and career is going to be different, because COVID has changed things, and will continue to change things as firms either adapt or fail.  I'm sure it does suck not being able to feel part of being an office and not meet your colleagues and partners who can mentor you, but you just have to kind of put up with it I'm afraid, and take every opportunity you can (but don't be a suck-up.  We all hate suck-ups).

I personally am enjoying not having to schedule endless meetings about nothing (yes, nothing.  Sometimes I used to have to attend those meetings as a minute taker and they were completely pointless.  We're talking board level meetings here.)

How I have received 90% of my work since around 2012:

1) by email.  Said work to be done using software attached to said computer and fully available through Citrix.  Said work returned to lawyer by email, or printed out and put on chair for the dinosaurs.  This includes traditional high level PA tasks like arranging complex travel arrangements, multi-time-zone meetings and video conferences.  All done by the wonder! that is the Internet.  Shocking.

2) dinosaurs who still dictate - through Bighand software attached to said computer and fully available through Citrix.  work returned to lawyer by email or printed out and put on chair as previous.

the remaining 10% (complete with WFH replacements)

1) partner remembering something as they walked back past my desk from lunch and shouting it to me as they passed, without stopping.  WFH equivalent - Skype messenger.

2) partner is a bit bored and wants a chat so either calls me in or calls me on phone if they are away from office. WFH version - Skype call.  You can see still see my face and everything!

3) printing and scanning.  hilariously, to this day lawyers will still email me a document or web link and ask me to print it out, scan it, and send it back to them so they have it as a pdf. The only reason I am asked to print out documents is because dinosaurs still like to read legal docs on paper and mark them up by hand.  Since lockdown, the number of partners who have fully embraced reading and amending/marking up on screen is a beautiful thing.  Those who haven't are struggling.  

4) printing out actual final paper engrossment version documents and getting them couriered out to other side/client etc.  Exceedingly rare these days.  WFH equivalent - none. Seriously, just employ more slighly more than minimum wage print room/facilities people.  There are still people willing to do these jobs, indeed jumping at the chance to earn slightly more than minimum wage at what they see as a prestigious company.  There is no need to pay me well over £40k a year to occasionally print things and book a courier.

Why I am still employed as a PA:

1) lawyers are too lazy/don't know how to run their own compares.

2) lawyers are too lazy/don't know how to convert pdfs into word documents.

3) lawyers are too lazy/don't know how to use Microsoft Outlook calendar.

4) [in a post lockdown world] lawyers are too lazy/don't know how to date pdf documents or put on electronic signatures / splice pdf documents together.

5) lawyers who work for law firms with time recording targets panic about having to time record the above tasks to non-chargeable time.  Even though it takes them more time to email me to ask me to do said tasks than it would for them to actually do them, which is 'surprise!' recorded to non-chargeable time.

6) lawyers would rather chew their own leg off than have to create a new matter/arrange or deal with compliance and conflict checks/deal with accounts/do their own bills/talk to someone they don't want to.  Can't say I blame them, I hate these tasks too, and really this is the main reason I still have a job and why PAs will continue to exist for some time.

Here's the irony:  pre-lockdown, the amount of time most people at my firm spent doing work in the office was far less than it is (for me at least) working from home.  PAs (and lawyers, for that matter) openly browsing the internet at their desks all day every day.  Aimlessly wondering round the office looking for someone to chat to, or having a mass chat in the kitchen area/in the corridor, ensuring those who had the bad fortune to have a desk near said areas couldn't actually concentrate on their work.  Post lockdown, when apparently none of us can be trusted to do our jobs from home and therefore are pressured to go in - no interruptions except for the odd Skype call or message, so I can do my work far more quickly and am far more responsive than I was in the office.  No interest in spending my day on the internet... I've been home since March pretty much with crap all to do outside of my job, I think I've already read the entire internet actually.  However, my flat is so much more tidy and I can see the bottom of my laundry basket.  Apologies if you consider this 5 min break from my screen at the recommended healthy intervals skiving but see previous note about my efficiency.

Solution to all this?  Treat people like adults and stop feeling so damn threatened.  If someone is doing sod all work, it will become clear very quickly.  If you genuinely don't know what they are doing all day, find out, then take appropriate action. It's not hard.  And stop threatening PAs that their jobs will become obsolete; first you'll have to tackle (5) above.  Go on, I'll wait.

N dubz 06 October 20 14:16

The junior lawyer loves it 😀. I bet he’s tipping up to work in his fresh Debenhams suit with buttys made by his mum thinking he’s top boy because he’s dealing with some whiplash claims. Legend!

Anon 07 October 20 10:38

To PA - fine, but you’re advocating most of your job role being done by fee earners in which case where does that leave you? 

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