Q&A: David Sanford on going back to his law firm's office

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  • Sanford Heisler Sharp has voluntary return policy in effect until Sept. 9
  • "People clearly prefer to work from home at least some of the time," Sanford said

June 10 (Reuters) - Even though on Monday he was working from the New York office of the law firm that bears his name, David Sanford said it felt like Sunday.

The firm's Midtown office is home to 30 employees, but the chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp said only two other partners were working in the office on Monday.

"It was barren and quiet," Sanford said.

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But it's what Sanford expected. Under the firm's voluntary work policy, its 100 employees firmwide can choose whether to work from Sanford Heisler Sharp's six offices between June 1 and Sept. 9, the Thursday after Labor Day.

After Sept. 9, Sanford said the firm will require attorneys to work from the office a certain number of days a week. Although the firm is still developing its policy, Sanford said they will go back "on a staggered basis," like two or three days a week.

Sanford talked with Reuters on Wednesday about empty offices, the psychological toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, and whether the five-day, in-office work week will return. The conversation below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

REUTERS: When do you see your firm going back to being in the office five days a week?

DAVID SANFORD: That will likely never happen again, for us, and I don't think it's going to happen for the majority of law firms in this country. I'd be surprised if it did. There really is no reason for it to be five days a week. People clearly prefer to work from home at least some of the time. There's a convenience factor, there's an efficiency factor, there's a morale factor -- all those factors and more lead to the inevitable conclusion that it's just not likely to happen, ever again, that people will be working five days a week in a law office.

REUTERS: So how has it been around your office since June 1?

SANFORD: There were only three of us in, so I think it's fair to say that very few people will be coming in on any regular basis. People may come in on some intermittent basis. And then there may be people who won't come in at all, during the summer. And that's perfectly fine, according to our policy.

REUTERS: Why do you think it is so empty? And how does that inform your plans for after the summer?

SANFORD: I don't think it informs the plans after the summer at all. We're using the summer as a transitional period. You know, COVID has taken a great psychological toll on this country. And individuals are still dealing with it. Some are dealing with the after-effects of a health crisis. Some are dealing with the sadness associated with losing friends or relatives. You know, we're still in the midst of it psychologically, and we thought it was very important to have a transitional period where people may come back if they want. I think it's very important for people ultimately to come back some time during the week, because you have culture to build, you have training to do, you have mentorship that is such an important part of legal training. You can't do all of that remotely, well. It's going to be important to do that in the office some of the time. The fact that people you know haven't returned in full force, or much in any force in the first week of the summer, doesn't tell me anything at all about what will be true about the fall and beyond.

REUTERS: So do you think more people will be coming back into the office, as we get later into the summer closer to fall?

SANFORD: I don't know. If people feel they can do what they need to do this summer at home, my guess is most people are going to want to be home. If they have children at home, there's just enormous convenience associated with being able to avoid a commute. Some of our lawyers commute in from various boroughs, in New Jersey. In some cases, there are two- to three-hour round trip commute times for people. And so if people can avoid that and be more efficient by staying at home, I think they're likely to do that. And again, according to our policy, they're welcome to do that. So I don't know things are going to change. They may. But I doubt they're going to change materially this summer.

REUTERS: You mentioned children and parenting, and I was wondering, from your standpoint, what kind of effect do you think parenting has on your colleagues' ideas for returning to work both this summer and this fall?

SANFORD: If we have a policy in September, that allows people to work from home two to three days a week, and you have lawyers with small children, I think most people will do the two to three days, and probably not do much beyond that, because of the virtues associated with working from home while being a young parent. I have a 7-year-old daughter, and it's great being home with her, and playing tennis with her, and going to her Taekwondo sessions, and being around available to her when she's home from school, I love that, and I'm sure that parents across America love that, and parents at our firm love that. That availability is precious and valuable. And I suspect that people will want to avail themselves of that opportunity to be home as much as they can.

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to change Memorial Day to Labor Day.

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David Thomas reports on the business of law, including law firm strategy, hiring, mergers and litigation. He is based out of Chicago. He can be reached at d.thomas@thomsonreuters.com and on Twitter @DaveThomas5150.