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More law firms set office return dates as Big Law weighs flexible future

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An empty office is pictured at Graphisoft HQ during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Budapest, Hungary, January 28, 2021. Picture taken January 28, 2021. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo - RC2PPL97OPNL

(Reuters) - The shift to remote work last spring came without much of a choice for law firm leaders - governments forced offices closed as COVID-19 spread. But now, as U.S. cities reopen and more workers get vaccinated, firms are considering when and how to bring their people back.

Most are being flexible, for now at least, by encouraging rather than requiring lawyers to return and hinting that some aspects of remote work are here to stay.

Reed Smith, for example, said Thursday that it will encourage people to work from the office at least one Wednesday in June. Its 17 U.S. offices will be fully re-opened by Sept. 7, but even then it will have a "new flexible work policy" that won't require lawyers to come to the office every day, it said.

"Our working environment and the ways we support clients have changed significantly from the pre-pandemic world," said Casey Ryan, Reed Smith’s global head of legal personnel. "We have adopted this flexible work policy with this new reality in mind and to capitalize on the best parts of what we have learned from remote working."

On Wednesday, Sheppard Mullin chair Guy Halgren said in an internal memo seen by Reuters that starting July 6 his firm will move to a "do your best" model, urging lawyers to come into the office with the "usual caveats including that you may have other obligations that keep you at home." After Labor Day, on Sept. 7, the firm will expect people to work from the office at least on some days.

"We do know for most of us there will be more time, and in many cases significantly more time, spent working remotely," Halgren said in the memo.

New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell is also encouraging - but not requiring - its lawyers to return to the office on July 6, according to media reports. Representatives for that firm did not respond to requests for comment.

Recorded U.S. COVID-19 infections have declined dramatically since January, despite an uptick in late March and early April, as more Americans have received vaccines. Earlier this week President Joe Biden announced a goal to vaccinate 70% of U.S. adults with at least one shot by July 4.

Still, few if any major law firms have set a date for a full, mandatory return to in-person work. Some have said they expect people to widely come back at some point in 2021 but haven't specified a date.

Vinson & Elkins chair Mark Kelly said in an email on Wednesday that he expects to have people in the office regularly later this year but that it's likely the firm will "continue to be flexible around where we work." For now, lawyers aren't required to come into the office unless needed for a client.

Shook, Hardy & Bacon chair Madeleine McDonough said her firm is "slowly but surely getting back to a lot more in-person working" but that for now it is "not mandating anything."

Many law firms saw revenues grow or at least hold steady in 2020 despite the pandemic, showing lawyers can be productive from home.

Continued remote work could cut costs by reducing real estate and staffing needs. It could also give a recruiting edge - a recent survey from legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa found the vast majority of the incoming generation of lawyers prefer to work remotely at least some of the time.

But remote work has its problems, too. Law firm leaders have raised concerns that it's difficult to train junior talent and maintain a cohesive culture.

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