Welcome to the Reuters.com BETA. Read our Editor's note on how we're helping professionals make smart decisions.
Skip to main content

Returning to the office? Lawyers at this midsize firm barely left

4 minute read

Munck Wilson Mandala offices in Dallas. REUTERS/Chinekwu Osakwe

  • Dallas-based Munck Wilson never embraced remote work like other firms
  • The tech-focused firm said science guided its return to the office beginning more than a year ago

(Reuters) - After a year that’s been anything but laid back, casual Fridays are a sign of normalcy these days at 75-lawyer Munck Wilson Mandala.

On the last Friday in May, lawyers and staff in the firm's Dallas home office were sporting jeans and other casual wear. But most striking was that the 60-attorney office was almost full, and has been home to an increasingly in-person workforce for more than a year.

While most large and midsize firms settled into long-term remote work in early 2020 and are now just easing back into the office, technology-focused Munck Wilson has been largely back in person since May 2020.

“We are scientists, we are engineers, we truly did follow the science,” said managing partner William Munck. "We went to the CDC, we went to the World Health Organization, we did a lot of our own thinking.”

During the summer of 2020, at least 50% of employees firmwide returned to working in the office, and the numbers steadily grew from there, said Shannon Tipton, the firm's public relations director.

Senior associate Aaron Dilbeck returned to the firm’s Dallas office on May 1, 2020. “I've got the dual monitor setup here, whereas I had my laptop screen and single monitor at home, so it was just more convenient for me to work from the office,” said Dilbeck, who, like many others at the firm, has a science and engineering background.

He said he never felt unsafe, especially since most people worked in their own private offices and thanks to masking and other health protocols, which he described as minor inconveniences.

MAKING IT WORK

There were sacrifices during the pandemic. Early on the firm cut compensation for partners, associates and exempt directors and managers as a precaution. But Munck emphasized that staff and administrative staff did not receive pay cuts, and by the end of July 2020, salary levels and deferred pay were restored.

Munck Wilson received just over $2 million in federal aid from the Paycheck Protection Program last spring, according to government records. Overall, the firm saw about a 6% dip in revenue last year, with a decline in its tech-focused hospitality practice, Munck said.

“Anything in the hospitality business got hammered. We did a lot of counseling on layoffs, and proper use of PPP money and other loans, grants that were available. That industry absolutely got hurt the worst,” said Munck.

The 24-year-old firm serves a clientele that's 75% technology-related, according to Munck, with a full-service practice mix but a particular focus on intellectual property. With the tech industry a relative bright spot during the pandemic, Munck said the firm was able to grow in the last year, hiring staff amid cuts at other firms and clearing away administrative duties from its own lawyers.

On the lateral attorney front, meanwhile, the firm's bullishness on in-person operations may have given it a recruiting edge, according to Kate Cassidy, founder of Dallas-based Lotus Legal Search.

"I worked with them on an IP group, and they had the group out to their offices over the last few months, Cassidy said. "They had a happy hour with them and a lot more in-person recruiting efforts than I've seen, and I think it makes a difference."

She said the lateral market in Dallas had been bustling in part because more recruiting there took place in person than in New York, where she also places attorneys.

“I've seen both associates and partners move to Dallas recently due in at least large part to the difference in the COVID responses,” Cassidy said.

There were skeptics when Munck Wilson announced its reopening in May 2020 and hosted an in-person summer clerk program for about a dozen law students.

But Munck said the firm used an app to determine if lawyers had symptoms before coming in, and there was no transmission of the virus in the office. The app was retired in March 2021, as was a mask requirement.

When people visit the firm now, staff are ready and willing to mask up if it makes clients or other visitors more comfortable. Strewn around the office are color coordinated cleaning supplies to ensure against contamination between rooms.

Not everyone has returned. But even without an in-person mandate, at least 95% of lawyers and staff are currently working in person, Munck said.

“There's going to be a point in time where we're going to have to work it out,” he said of the holdouts.

Read More:

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

Q&A: Wilson Sonsini’s optional 2021 office return, and what comes next

Chinekwu Osakwe covers legal industry news with a focus on midsize law firms. Reach her at Chinekwu.osakwe@thomsonreuters.com.

More from Reuters