Morgan Lewis partner Michael Kraut and his family were moving briskly through the San Diego airport to catch a flight home from vacation early this year when Kraut received an email from a U.S. Bank lawyer asking him to review a legal case.
Kraut, who was carrying luggage and not yet through security, instinctively wrote back to let the in-house attorney at his longtime client know he was about to fly back to New York from a family trip and would examine the matter on the plane.
The U.S. Bank lawyer responded that Kraut did not need to do that and could instead respond at a later date after he returned home.
The interaction is one example of how U.S. Bank is implementing guidelines designed to promote well-being in its outside counsel relationships through a pilot program the bank launched in tandem with seven well-known law firms late last year.
The guidelines set forth expectations for communication between internal and external counsel, as well as highlight the importance of attorneys maintaining work-life balance.
Ben Carpenter, U.S. Bank’s deputy general counsel, said the bank’s initiative stems from its belief that lawyers who maintain their mental, emotional and physical well-being provide stronger client representation.
“We don't want our outside counsel to be tired, beat up and stressed out; we want them to be at their best,” Carpenter told Legal Dive. “We think that implementing these guidelines will help them be at their best, and ultimately, provide better results.”
Recommended action steps
U.S. Bank’s well-being guidelines for its outside counsel relationships were developed in close consultation with the seven participating firms: Alston & Bird; Dorsey & Whitney; Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath; Husch Blackwell; Morgan Lewis; Nixon Peabody; and Thompson Coburn.
Carpenter, the U.S. Bank lawyer leading the initiative, said the selected firms all regularly work with the bank and have signed the American Bar Association’s well-being pledge.
The guidelines the bank and firms developed use the word “we” because both the bank’s lawyers and its outside counsel are committing to efforts to implement the recommended action steps.
The guidelines specific to communications place a strong emphasis on attorneys being considerate of others when working during off hours. For example, they encourage delaying non-urgent communications until work hours, as well as including expectations for the time when a response is needed.
The guidelines also recommend lawyers communicate clearly about when they will be taking time off to avoid unnecessary interruptions. Efforts along those lines could include identifying a backup contact or suggesting other arrangements for any urgent matters that arise.
Urgent matters should be the exception and not the rule, according to the guidelines. They also suggest resisting the temptation to “over-deliver” if doing so would sacrifice work-life balance.
As for project management, the guidelines convey that the bank will consider alternatives to the traditional billable-hour arrangement, where appropriate, to reduce the impact of billable-hour demands on lawyer well-being.
Carpenter stressed the guidelines are not prescriptive but are aimed at encouraging attorneys to be more thoughtful in how they communicate and work with one another on projects.
“These guidelines are designed to provide principles and examples, not rules, to try to help each side be mindful of how we interact,” Carpenter said. “Eventually, our hope is that these guidelines fall by the wayside and that these practices become part of our everyday culture.”
Carpenter said the early results since the initiative’s launch in December are promising.
The bank has been more mindful about when its lawyers send emails and make phone calls to its outside lawyers. It also has discussed out-of-office times with outside counsel and planned around them.
“None of these are dramatic, but they are significant in that they help to build meaningful, collaborative relationships that rely on a mutual commitment to better well-being,” Carpenter said.
One example he highlights as a success story was when an outside lawyer contacted the bank on a Friday about a project they had expected to turn in that day. The outside attorney conveyed they would instead like to have the weekend to work on the matter and turn in the project on Monday.
Carpenter said a bank lawyer responded to confirm that it was fine not to turn in the project that Friday, but also said they did not want the lawyer to work through the weekend. Instead, they recommended the lawyer return to the project when they got back to work on Monday and turn it in early that week.
“What we have seen so far is that people are adopting small changes that are making a big difference,” Carpenter said.
Participating firms have also embraced the guidelines, Carpenter said — with a common theme being appreciation that they don’t have to compete on how quickly they finish non-urgent matters.
Law firm feedback
Kraut, the Morgan Lewis partner who has led teams representing U.S. Bank for more than a decade, said he has been impressed with the implementation of the well-being guidelines to date.
In the San Diego airport example, Kraut’s natural instincts made him feel that if he didn’t respond right away, the bank would call another law firm and hire them for the matter.
The bank’s response that he could review the matter once he returned from home was a refreshing reminder that they were not contemplating going elsewhere and wanted him to properly finish off his vacation.
“For years, I would always tell clients, ‘I'm going to be on vacation next week. I'm not going to be in the office, so call my cell phone if you need to reach me,’” Kraut said. “And now the client has given me permission to direct them to my lieutenants as a primary point of contact without guilt or worry.”
Another example the New York-based Kraut shares of the guidelines sparking a change in behavior was when one of his Morgan Lewis colleagues was working on a regulatory submission for U.S. Bank.
Kraut’s firm colleague emailed him on a Friday evening to share that the draft was in good shape and she planned to send it to the client that night after making further revisions.
Kraut responded by saying that sending the email late on a Friday would only interrupt the bank lawyer’s weekend unnecessarily and that the bank would prefer it be submitted on Monday morning during work hours.
“They just want to know that they'll have it when it's done, and they're much happier to know that we're turning off at the end of the workday,” Kraut said. “As someone who's always trying to deliver excellent service, it's helpful to know how they value it so we can hit the mark.”
Expanding the pilot
The initiative will be expanded to other outside law firms, Carpenter said. The only questions are when and how, he added, saying there is no set timetable on that.
Carpenter also said he would love to see more legal departments implement a version of the well-being guidelines with their outside counsel, as that would produce a broader impact in the legal industry.
“Ultimately, clients are the ones who are going to have to work hard to set expectations and then continuously reinforce those expectations with the law firms,” he said.