Q&A: Wilson Sonsini’s optional 2021 office return, and what comes next

5 minute read

REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

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(Reuters) - With vaccines keeping the coronavirus in check, many U.S. law firms are pushing to get most lawyers and staff back in the office this summer or sometime after Labor Day.

Not Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. Although the Palo Alto-founded firm is re-opening its U.S. offices with full amenities and services on Sept. 20, it's not requiring employees to return to the office for at least the remainder of the calendar year.

The firm is currently exploring its options for 2022, keeping in mind the benefits of both in-person and remote work, said Chris Boyd, Wilson Sonsini's chief operating officer.

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And like other firm leaders, Boyd doesn't expect many lawyers who do return to the office to be there five days a week.

"There will be times when a team needs to come together physically. Trials are the obvious example," Boyd said. "There may be groups of people who choose to work more frequently in the office. But that will be a choice.

Boyd talked with Reuters about the firm's new workplace task force, other firms' plans and what a hybrid work environment means for firm culture.

The conversation below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

REUTERS: So what about next calendar year?

CHRIS BOYD: Well, that is a great question that we're actually looking at right now. We set up a task force that's cross-office, cross-practice, cross-seniority, diversity – just a pretty representative group of lawyers and staff – to look at that very question. How to essentially blend the benefits of working together in the office, from the perspective of client service and team building and productivity and so forth, but also blend in the benefits of flexibility, of working from home.

There are clearly benefits to both. That is one thing that the pandemic has taught us. So the next step is to identify what sort of arrangement, once we're truly post-pandemic and in a steady-state situation, what arrangement works best to maximize the blend of both of those benefits.

REUTERS: I'm sure you've seen the announcements from several other firms that they're requiring employees to go back into the office later this summer or in the fall. What do you make of those moves?

CB: Every firm needs to make its own decision, in terms of what makes sense for its culture, for its client-service model, for its people in their given offices. And we don't particularly intend to follow any one other firm or group, we really intend to do what's best for our people and for our clients and for our culture.

The task force discussions have been really interesting, in terms of people at all levels saying no, we actually really do like being in the office some of the time and we benefit from it, our clients benefit from it, our people benefit from it in terms of learning, development, building professional relationships and so forth. On the other hand, we've learned from working almost entirely from home that there are real benefits to that, too. We're really following what our folks have learned and what people have developed in terms of their own lifestyles and how they can learn, develop, serve clients, build relationships, whether at home or in the office.

REUTERS: Do you think we'll ever go back to a standard five-day office work week in the legal industry?

CB: Not as a norm. I think the norm will be, by and large, converging on sort of halftime at the office, maybe a little more, maybe a little less, and it will be situational, depending how it works for people. But at least I'm pretty sure for our firm, it will never be the expectation will be five days a week in the office.

REUTERS: Do you have any worries that could allow a sort-of tiered culture, where lawyers who opt for being more remote advance in the firm less easily than attorneys who come into the office every day?

CB: It's a great point and clearly that is one of the concerns about a hybrid environment. The task force was very clear that, as we institute a more hybrid workplace environment, we needed to have processes in place – everything from the tools we use for collaboration to the processes we use for running hybrid meetings – to make sure that those who are not physically co-present were every bit equal participants, and that their voices were heard and that they learned in the same way.

We will likely have lawyers and staff who are fully remote after the pandemic is over, even on an ongoing basis. And we will need to institute ways to make sure they are included, both physically from time to time, but also the vast majority of the time when they're not physically present. So it's absolutely a concern. I don't think it's an unsurmountable one.

Read more:

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

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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.