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The silence is deafening from top law firms on back-to-office plans

6 minute read

Hogan Lovells law firm offices in Washington, D.C. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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(Reuters) - During the initial stages of the pandemic, every Big Law firm leader I talked to -- and I mean all of them -- boasted about their near-seamless transition to remote work, of their ability (in PR vernacular) to continue to provide exceptional client service in this new environment.

I believed them. And indeed, many law firms saw record profits in 2020.

Some jobs simply can’t be done remotely -- setting a broken bone, fixing a leaky pipe, stocking a supermarket shelf -- but lawyering isn’t one of them.

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Which makes me wonder: As the COVID-19 Delta variant surges, breakthrough infections mount and hospitals are being inundated with unvaccinated patients, why would firm leaders cling to back-to-office plans made months earlier, when the pandemic landscape looked very different?

Some, to their credit, are not.

At Hogan Lovells, Richard Lorenzo, regional managing partner for the Americas, said via email: “Given the recent rise in COVID rates throughout the United States we have decided to move our return to office date in the Americas to Monday, November 1, 2021, from our previous plans to return in September.”

And even then, Lorenzo cautioned, “These plans remain flexible and may be adjusted if conditions change in the U.S. related to the pandemic and CDC or local guidance.”

If anyone wants to work in the office in the meantime, he added, they are required to be fully vaccinated.

Likewise, White & Case spokeswoman Erin Hershkowitz told me that the firm’s return-to-the-office date has now been postponed from Sept. 7 to Oct. 4.

“Starting on that date lawyers and staff will be asked to spend two or three days a week in the office through the end of 2021. We will require that anyone working in our U.S. offices be fully vaccinated (i.e., two weeks after final dose) as of October 4th.”

Sidley Austin has pushed its return-to-office date from September to “no earlier than October 12,” firm spokesman Matt Messinger told me.

Weil, Gotshal & Manges is also bailing on a post-Labor Day return, though the firm hasn’t settled on a new date, according to an internal memo that I reviewed.

“Given the current state of the pandemic, the September 7th date for the full return to the office in the US is being pushed back,” the firm’s general counsel Mindy J. Spector wrote on Aug. 5. “We hope that this delay is only a matter of weeks. In any event, we will give people at least two weeks’ notice with respect to a new return date.”

Moreover, she wrote, effective Aug. 11 all firm personnel must be vaccinated to enter the office and “all individuals must wear a mask at all times while in our Weil offices, unless they are alone in their own enclosed office.”

“Upon the full reopening,” she continued, “every Weil employee in the US is required to be vaccinated and resident in their home office,” though employees could apply for a medical or religious exemption.

At Norton Rose Fulbright, the firm is still aiming for a September return but is “limiting access to our firm’s U.S. offices to those who are fully vaccinated until further notice,” according to spokesman Dan McKenna.

Last week, my colleague David Thomas reported that Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison also has postponed plans for returning to the office on Sept. 13 and will restrict office access to vaccinated lawyers, staff and visitors.

Thomas also reported that Cooley will not require its U.S. attorneys and staff to return to the office for the remainder of the year.

That covers seven of the 20 highest-grossing firms in the U.S. but what about the other 13? I’m looking at you, Kirkland & Ellis; Latham & Watkins; DLA Piper; Baker McKenzie; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and the rest of the top-earning bunch.

Crickets.

I reached out to all of them, but firm spokespeople either declined to comment or did not respond to my requests for comment. In some cases, they acted like I’d inquired about their lawyers stealing from IOLTA accounts or sexting summer associates.

Why so skittish?

Big Law often moves in a herd. When one firm raises associate salaries, the others fall in line. From casual dress codes to paternity benefits to adding diversity and inclusion officers, firms tend to keep close tabs on what their competitors are doing and adjust their personnel policies accordingly.

I suspect some of the no-comment firms are reluctant to get out in front of the return-to-office question and will eventually copy whatever the majority of their peers are doing.

Others may be cowed by certain busybody clients who want to micro-manage the attendance policies of their outside counsel by demanding that their lawyers work from the office.

Except why? If as the firms say, their lawyers can do excellent work from home, why risk their health or the health of their under-12 children who can’t get vaccinated? Why not wait until the latest surge abates?

Working remotely may not be ideal, but neither is catching or spreading the coronavirus.

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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

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