Lawyers are great at asking questions, but how are they at answering them? Bloomberg Law is talking with lawyers and other legal industry players to find out what their lives look like in the age of work from home.
As early as January, managing partners at Sidley Austin’s offices were monitoring the Covid-19 outbreak in China. The firm asked lawyers and staffers who had recently visited China to work remotely, and started planning for the likelihood that the entire firm would have to work remotely.
The New York City office, the second largest of Sidley’s 10 U.S. offices, has 650 lawyers and staffers, and the responsibility for coordinating this massive undertaking fell, in large part, on Samir Gandhi. A capital markets and private equity partner, Gandhi has also served as the managing partner of the New York office for the last three years.
Bloomberg Law spoke with Gandhi about the challenges of managing a remote workforce, how to strike a work-life balance while working from home, and how he stays connected to clients, partners, and staffers.
(Editor’s note: Remarks have been edited for clarity and length)
Bloomberg Law: Describe your day to day routine.
Samir Gandhi: I pretty much get up around 6:30 a.m. and have coffee with my wife. I try to run at least every other day, either outside or on a treadmill, and then head to my home office and start working around 8:30 am. One of the first things I do now is to send out a daily “art” email. We have a lot of great art in our office, so every morning at 9 a.m., with the help of our office Art Committee and my partner, Cathy Kaplan, I send an email with a PDF of a picture from one of the pieces that currently hang in our office.
In the email we describe the piece, the background of the artist, and sometimes I include a story about the piece, why I like it or not, or something interesting about the artist. It’s fun for me to put it together, and it’s one way to keep people connected to the office as one of the things people remember about our office is the art. People have been telling me that they really miss the office and the art is a nice reminder of it. The rest of my day is always busy between client work, trying to help manage the office, and reaching out to speak to our partners, associates and staff.
BL: What is the hardest thing about working from home?
SG: Not seeing everybody in the office every day. When I’m in the office, I walk around a lot and try to see how people are doing, what they might need help with. I’m always available, but since my job is to work for the people in our office, I tell them they can call me 24/7. And lately I’ve had people call me at all hours of the day and sometimes in the middle of the night. I have a lot of people in my house during this crisis and work keeps me pretty busy, but others live by themselves, and sometimes you just need a real person to talk to about something other than work.
BL: What is something your firm is doing that has been really helpful?
SG: I think there are a lot of things we are trying to do to be as helpful as we can to our people — most of it is work related, but we are trying to keep everyone connected to each other on a personal level. On Mondays, I send out an office-wide email trying to keep everyone up to date. I try to reduce as much uncertainty as I can and communicate as much as I can, I try to only send one email a week as no one needs to get an email from the managing partner every day. In addition to the usual business-related items, each week I’ve been asking everyone for tips for working from home, what kind of music they are listening to while they work, what shows they are watching, and what books they are reading — and sharing these in the next week’s email.
BL: What kinds of technology are you using? Any challenges while working remotely?
SG: Our IT group has been heroic, and so they have made this much easier than I thought it would be. There are days in which I feel everything has been seamless —even the podcasts that I host for the firm have been made easy to do remotely. We have finished a number of these podcasts focusing on the Covid-19 crisis and how it affects businesses.
At Sidley, we use video technology that is very secure, but I still like the phone the most. Like most firms, our office lines have been routed to our cell phones. And one challenge that came up early was that we can do everything remotely except for getting the mail. That’s important since we get served notices, receive legal documents, etc. So we have to have someone physically go to the building and pick up the mail. Fortunately it now gets routed elsewhere and sorted there.
BL: What is your top piece of advice about working from home?
SG: You have to have some kind of structure. There are times when I want to lie in bed until noon, but I don’t. You’ve got to get up, make your bed, get ready for work, and treat it like a work day. I’ve been walking around in a T-shirt and jeans, but some are getting dressed in business casual clothes. And you have to take a break and get away from staring at the computer. The day needs to end at some point.
BL: What’s your favorite working from home story that made you laugh, shake your head, or just throw up your hands?
SG: I came into the kitchen one morning, and my wife and daughters were doing a Zumba class. In the kitchen. It was really loud.
BL: What do you do to de-stress or take your mind off work when you’re trapped inside (or limited in where you can go)?
SG: The most important thing is dinner with everyone. I have a son who’s 24 years-old, and three daughters, aged 20, 18, and 16 years-old. At our house at 7 pm, everything has to stop. We have dinner from 7 pm until 8:30 p.m.; no devices, only talking and eating with each other. I haven’t had dinner with my kids in years. And I get to spend a lot of time with my wife. I actually have more of a work-life balance during this time even though I feel like I am working constantly because we are cleaning together, eating together and talking in person a lot more. You don’t realize how much you’ve missed working 12 hours a day in the office for almost 30 years.