Law firm leaders play catch-up as virus outlook shifts

REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Firms balance conflicting interests as case counts drop
  • "There's risk in all directions," says one ex-law firm COO

(Reuters) - Instead of heading into the office, many lawyers at Debevoise & Plimpton will be logging in at home again on Monday after the firm delayed a planned Oct. 11 mass return. Meanwhile, Ropes & Gray, which last month scrapped plans for an October return, is now ramping up for a gradual reopening early next month.

The seven-day average of daily U.S. coronavirus cases dropped below 100,000 on Friday, the latest milestone as the Delta wave continues to retreat. For the country, it’s reason to cheer. For law firm leaders, it’s the latest twist in a management rollercoaster, as they balance wanting to reopen offices with health considerations, client preferences and attorney expectations.

"There's risk in all directions," said Vertex Advisors Group founder Robert Kamins, a former operations chief at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith who advises law firms on management issues.

"There's risk for the firm that if you push too hard you might lose good people...There's a risk for the candidates or for the lawyers at firms [that] if you don't go in, your career will suffer. So there are forces on all sides that are pushing on this, which is quite challenging," Kamins said.

A Debevoise spokesperson confirmed it postponed its Monday reopening but declined to say whether it has a new target. Ropes & Gray, which earlier planned for an Oct. 18 return, will now begin its next reopening phase on Nov. 8, according to an internal Oct. 4 email.

Citing "steady improvement" in case rates, Ropes chair Julie Jones said lawyers will begin working in person at least once or twice weekly through the end of the year. She wrote that 70 percent of partners were already back in the office at the end of September.

Weil Gotshal & Manges is also planning a "partial return" to U.S. offices next month. The firm's general counsel Mindy Spector told employees at the start of the month that beginning Nov. 1 she expects attorneys and others to be in at least two days a week until a broader planned return on Jan. 10.

Even then, Spector said in an internal email, employees can work remotely on Fridays and can take one additional remote day each week.

Firms are walking a narrow line, said law firm consultant Kent Zimmermann of the Zeughauser Group. "The challenge is balancing the benefits of being in-person with the imperative to attract and retain the best people, knowing that some of them aren’t ready to be expected in the office full time," he said.

Then there's the biggest concern of all: clients. While many companies have embraced remote work, some in key industries like investment banking and finance have been less keen, Kamins said. In July Morgan Stanley chief legal officer Eric Grossman chastised law firms for "the lack of urgency to return lawyers to the office," suggesting they risked losing the bank's business.

Grossman's warning came when the Delta wave was just gathering force. By late summer, concerns about the virus appeared to overwhelm the message at many firms, leading to a flurry of delayed reopenings. With the wave now receding, industry watchers say firms will have to keep adjusting as they wait to see what winter brings.

Read more:

More law firms scrap October return plans, opting to watch and wait

Akin Gump nixes October office return, setting no new target

Seyfarth Shaw just tightened its vaccine mandate. Will other firms follow?

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Xiumei Dong covers legal industry news, with a focus on law firm strategy and growth, in-house counsel and the Washington, D.C., legal market. Reach her at