Deck the conference room: In-person law firm holiday parties are back

Illustrative: A man dressed as Santa Claus and woman dressed as angel wear face masks amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Berlin, Germany, October 8, 2020. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

(Reuters) - If you were to chart the lavishness of law firm holiday parties, the apex might be 2008, when more than 9,000 people attended the Lanier Law Firm’s bash in Houston featuring a performance by Miley Cyrus.

As for the nadir? Pretty much every Zoom holiday party in 2020, though firms gamely tried to make them “fun” with trivia contests, cooking classes, game shows and the like. In the end, though, we were all still drinking alone in front of our computers.

Last year wasn’t much better. The cresting COVID-19 Omicron wave scuttled some in-person gatherings after, for example, a Latham & Watkins holiday party in New York resulted in “a number of positive cases,” the firm told my Reuters colleague at the time. (A spokeswoman on Tuesday declined further comment.)

So what about this year, now that we've entered the COVID-is-still-around-but-we're-acting-like-we're-immune-phase of the pandemic?

Dust off your jingle bell earrings and dig out your candy cane neckties: Law firm holiday parties are back.

Yay?

Firms across the board tell me they’re planning in-person gatherings this year, though some festivities are sounding a bit less raucous — and more community-oriented — than pre-pandemic days.

In part, this might be due to the economy. Per the latest report from Wells Fargo's Legal Specialty Group, demand for legal services has fallen in the first nine months of 2022, with net income down 7.3% to date and profits per partner sinking 8.5%.

That’s enough to put anyone in a bah humbug mood.

Economic considerations aren't the only factor, though. For example, William "Toby" Eveland, managing partner of Saul Ewing's Chicago office, told me the 125-person branch in recent years has linked its holiday party to a charitable initiative, in the spirit of giving.

This year, it’s LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality Illinois. At the party, he'll announce a donation made in the name of each office member. But in light of the recent mass shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, an over-the-top celebration would have felt “tone deaf,” Eveland said.

Set for Dec. 7, the party will be held in the amenity center of the downtown skyscraper where Saul Ewing has its Chicago office, featuring food, drinks and a jazz trio.

Unlike later-evening affairs of yore, however, it's scheduled from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

“People want to be home with their families,” Eveland said (though spouses and significant others are also invited to the gathering).

Seattle-founded Davis Wright Tremaine is also aiming for more of a community connection with its revamped holiday gatherings. Pre-pandemic, the 600-lawyer firm typically held its flagship office party in the late afternoon at a major event space such as Benaroya Hall, where the Seattle Symphony performs.

This year, spokesman Mark Fefer said the firm is “focusing on lunches and happy hours and tying these events to social-impact activities such as toy drives and adopt-a-family programs.”

Polsinelli’s firmwide holiday gathering is serving as something of a two-for-one affair.

The party at the firm's Country Club Plaza headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, will honor partner Frank Ross, who chaired the firm’s business department for 25 years before stepping down on Nov. 1. On his watch, the practice grew from 30 lawyers in 1998 to more than 300 professionals now.

A spokeswoman told me the Dec. 15 festivities will include cocktails and appetizers, plus music by a string quartet.

Bucking the low-key trend, Los Angeles litigation firm Hueston Hennigan is going big with its holiday party.

Pre-pandemic, the gathering was typically held at a partner’s home. This year, co-founder John Hueston said via email, it will be at a hotel, with all lawyers and staff treated to an overnight stay. The firm is also continuing its tradition of raffling off high-end prizes, which in past years have included electronics and luggage.

I also checked in with the Lanier firm, which for two decades blew other firms out of the water with huge holiday parties featuring musical acts that also included Sting, Dolly Parton and Bon Jovi, as well as carnival rides and barbecue.

Firm founder Mark Lanier, who has a track record of winning multibillion-dollar verdicts, in an email told me the holiday mega-bashes are a thing of the past.

“We had gotten to the point where they were almost unwieldy,” he said of the events that he and his wife Becky hosted in Houston until about eight years ago. “These parties were on our property (we live on about 40 acres) and they were three months to set up and three months to tear down.”

We “decided to go out before we lost our party mojo,” he said, adding that “Once we had Miley Cyrus performing with over 9,000 showing up, we knew we had topped out!”

But that doesn’t mean firm employees are getting nothing but lumps of coal this year. Lanier told me the firm has rented out a bowling alley for "loads of bowling fun!"

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com