Morgan Stanley’s senior leadership really, really wants everyone back in the office five (or more) days a week.

A month ago, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman issued an ultimatum to his employees that remote working is over and they must return to the office. “If you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office,” he said, mercilessly murdering a straw man. Last week, he doubled down on this claim on an earnings call, this time adding some boilerplate about the limits of telecommuting when it comes to mentoring, forgetting that on a typical day, most professional workers only interact with supervisors over the phone even when inside the office. Apropos of nothing, Morgan Stanley profits are booming right now while employees continue to work remotely.

On Thursday, Morgan Stanley Chief Legal Officer Eric Grossman sent a memo to the bank’s stable of law firms and legal service providers encouraging that they buck the emerging 3- or 4-day office work week trend and bring everyone back full-time… with a heavily implied “or else.” “Our profession cannot long endure a remote work model,” he said, noting “I strongly believe that firms that return to the office will have a significant performance advantage over those that do not,” despite the top law firms Morgan Stanley works with achieving record profits in 2020. In his defense, firms do owe a chunk of that profitability to cost-savings from a year without travel, but revenue was still up roughly in line with recent trends.

So we have empirical proof that working remotely isn’t hurting the bottom line at law firms. If Grossman believes his outside counsel have delivered sub-par work for the past year, he’s seemingly not rushing to fire firms. So why is there a lockstep commitment among the bank’s senior leadership to pushing workers — its own and those of its outside vendors — back into the office? And why is Morgan Stanley more or less alone on an island making a public — or at least consciously leakable — spectacle about returning to the office?

Not to get all “follow the money,” but when a bank is making huge profits working from home, and its law firms are making huge money working from home, there aren’t too many angles left but to conclude that Morgan Stanley must be really, really worried about the commercial real estate market.

And that’s not totally crazy. To some extent, every bank is dabbling directly or indirectly in commercial real estate and the sort of short-term collapse that could hit when companies realize they can eliminate a floor or two will burn a lot of folks. But Morgan Stanley’s aggressiveness here suggests they have it worse than some of their peers if things go sideways.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that Gorman and Grossman are just sincerely concerned about professional mentorship. If they are, I think they’d be pretty shocked to learn how many partners are already working from home during the work week. Because I’ve covered office redesigns over the years and “we shrunk these rooms because our head of X group only comes in three days a week” is something I’ve heard more than once.

But Morgan Stanley’s leaders are savvy enough to know this, which is why this mentorship talk is just another manufactured canard. Putting aside the “virtual law firms” out there doing high-end work and landing in the Am Law 200, the law firms that Morgan Stanley works with aren’t talking about a 100 percent remote workforce. The firms taking tentative steps into flexible office models are talking about lawyers working from home one or two days of the traditional work week. Do these guys honestly think that mentorship is impossible when everyone’s in Tuesdays-Fridays? If the profession requires permanent in-person mingling, then why stop at a five-day week? Why not seven?

Which, of course, Biglaw already has. The dirty secret of these 3- and 4-day office work week models is that all it does is create an additional Saturday where you bill from home. Biglaw attorneys presume at least one weekend day is going to be spent billing, now there’s going to be one where it’s mandatory too. That’s it. And, just like those Saturdays and Sundays, there will come a time — sooner rather than later — when the client meeting or the deposition or the closing is going to happen on the lawyer’s work from home day and you know what will happen then? They’ll come in to the office.

If you’re going to try and push people back into the office, at least put some work into it and air some vague concerns about confidentiality or cyberattacks. That’s the sort of thing that people fear and fail to understand in equal measure. But appealing to productivity amidst record profits and mentorship against the backdrop of one additional day working from home is not cutting it.

Morgan Stanley Top Lawyer Demands Law Firms Return to Office [Bloomberg]
‘Our Profession Cannot Long Endure a Remote Work Model,’ Morgan Stanley CLO Tells Law Firms [Law.com]

Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.

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