Bank GCs Say Office Work Will Remain Key Post-Pandemic

A handful of top legal officers at major banks had a message Tuesday about their plans to return at least partially to an in-person work environment following the COVID-19 pandemic: There's no replacement for face-to-face interaction. 

Speaking at a Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association webcast, the executives from banks including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley said some of the best professional development for attorneys can only happen face-to-face among colleagues.

"One thing that worries me — and I am happy to say this out loud — is that I fear that the legal profession here, particularly in New York, there's a bit of a race to the bottom in terms of who can be the most flexible," said Eric F. Grossman, chief legal officer at Morgan Stanley.

"They're giving the younger lawyers what they think they want," Grossman added. "People think, 'OK, well, that's worked for me.' But in a world in which everyone's in the office, and you're the one on Zoom, you're the one on conference call, you are going to miss out."

Grossman's comments came after he was said to have recently sent a memo to outside law firms urging them to bring workers back to the office, or potentially risk losing some of the bank's business.

"All the things that happen, not on Zoom — the meetings before the meetings, after, the body language, the lunches, the walks, the other things that you can't do on Zoom and won't do on Zoom — are lost opportunities for personal development," he said.

Grossman acknowledged that Morgan Stanley itself had been "pretty flexible" before the pandemic, having allowed staff a work-life balance that would permit them to "coach Little League or make sure you got to every parent-teacher meeting."

But his priority now is to get everyone possible back in the office, then work out potential flexible arrangements later.

"I hope that everybody just takes a pause on this and says, 'Look, let's get back to the office, because we know that's worked,'" he said.

Many of the panelists agreed that some of their best experiences and training occurred in the office, but they suggested that the pandemic also showed the advantages of working remotely, and that they would offer flexibility immediately as their returns to the office play out.

"I agree that I learned by being able to be in people's offices, to talk about things that don't merit a 30-minute Zoom [and] ask questions that wouldn't come up in a remote environment," said Stacey Friedman, general counsel with JPMorgan Chase & Co. "But we also recognize the enormous benefits of the wellness pieces of being able not to commute."

"I've experienced that myself already with some of my team who are back to a hybrid relationship," Friedman added.

For instance, during the pandemic Friedman could contact her chief human resources lawyer at the same exact time daily and know he would pick up the phone in Chicago, she said.

"We've talked a lot because he didn't have to commute," she said. "[But] I tried to reach him the other day, and he was on the train. And so we do see the benefits of both. We also are hesitant to say that we know exactly what all the answers are."

Friedman said the legal department's "base case" will be to work three days in the office and two days out of the office ... "and we're in that process of working through how you do that."

Christopher Lewis, general counsel with Edward Jones, said his department will be "committed to flexibility" when workers return to the office after Labor Day, many following a hybrid work model.

"[I] completely agree with the notion that development happens organically, particularly in the legal practice," Lewis said. But, he said, "We were really very pleased with the resilience of the organization, the teams, in going to a remote work setting."

"There are lots of jewels that we all picked up during this COVID experience. How do we make sure that we don't lose those, and that we integrate those into how we work going forward?" Lewis added. 

A Wells Fargo spokesperson on Tuesday shared an internal memo showing a return to office plan for its legal department that, similar to the plan shared by Friedman of JPMorgan, will require three days a week in the office.

Ellen Patterson, Wells Fargo's general counsel, noted at the SIFMA event that she started her position in March 2020, "about a week after we started sending everybody home." After a year of remote work, she's spent more time in the office in recent months.

"From that perspective, [I can] say it's amazing to be with people, particularly when you haven't met them ever, and you've been working with them over the video screen," she said.

--Editing by Jill Coffey. 


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