'My receptionist doesn't have a job.' Firms ponder remote work for staff

3 minute read

REUTERS/Emily Elconin

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  • Law firm administrative staff have had a more difficult transition to remote work than attorneys
  • Firms are weighing that divide as they devise return-to-office policies
  • The Delta variant has reignited the debate over law firm vaccine mandates

(Reuters) - Many U.S. lawyers are looking ahead to a future of part-time remote work, as law firms embrace a more hybrid model. But what about the legal assistants and other professional staffers who often out-number attorneys at their firms?

If and how non-attorney staff can enjoy the same flexible work opportunities as lawyers is among the many questions law firms are grappling with as they consider return-to-office policies, according to a panel of lawyers assembled by the American Bar Association for an online discussion this week.

And the sudden rise of the Delta variant is throwing a wrench into firms’ tentative plans to bring more people back to the office in the coming weeks, they said. For example, Hogan Lovells on Thursday delayed its return-to-office date by a week, to Sept. 13.

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“We’re trying to strike a delicate balance of how we effectively service our clients and deal with the trepidation of lawyers who want to stay at home, or who want to be partially at home and partially in the office,” said ABA panel moderator Joey Jackson, founder of the six-lawyer New York firm Joey Jackson Law and legal analyst for CNN.

Attorneys have generally had an easier time doing their jobs remotely than law firm staff, and discussions over when and how to return to the office must acknowledge that divide, said Patricia Brown Holmes, managing partner of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, which has 80 lawyers and five offices.

“My receptionist doesn’t have a job if people don’t come to the office,” Holmes said on Thursday's panel. “What do I do about the individual who runs the high-speed copier? They can’t do that from home. What do I do when a lawyer needs a binder for trial? That can’t happen at home.”

While firms will always need some staff in their offices, they can find creative ways to fully integrate many staff roles remotely, said attorney J.Y. Miller, who manages Husch Blackwell’s virtual office, called The Link. That office currently has more than 100 members—primarily attorneys and paralegals. But in September, the firm plans to incorporate an additional 70 staff members into The Link, many of whom work in accounting, IT, and human resources.

“If we put our heads together, we can find a way to empower and enable (staff) to join the attorneys in this virtual office setting,” Miller said.

Vaccine mandates have reemerged as a source of discussion among firms with COVID-19 cases increasing and companies such as Apple and Google adopting vaccine requirements, alongside a new requirement that federal employees be vaccinated in order to work in offices, the panelists noted. Lowenstein Sandler and Dickinson Wright are among the firms that announced this week that lawyers and staff must be vaccinated before coming into the office.

“I tend to err on the side of caution in taking more rather than fewer measures to combat the spread of the virus,” said panelist and legal journalist David Lat, who was hospitalized for three weeks last year as he battled COVID-19.

Lat said law firm policies that require workers to be vaccinated or submit to periodic testing to gain office access “strike the right balance” and will likely prompt many to get the vaccine, if only to avoid the hassle of frequent COVID tests.

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com