White-shoe law firms get cold feet on office re-openings

Signage is seen outside of the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP in Washington, D.C.
Signage outside of the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP in Washington, D.C., U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Wall Street firms and their financial industry clients both grappling with approach to rising cases
  • Paul Weiss, Debevoise, Cravath and Davis Polk all announced new office return policies this week

(Reuters) - Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison on Thursday became one of the latest U.S. law firms to postpone plans for returning to the office and to restrict office access to vaccinated lawyers, staff and visitors

The announcement, delivered in an internal memo from Paul Weiss chairman Brad Karp, adds to a growing list of large firms nationwide delaying return plans, tightening vaccine policies or both amid rising coronavirus cases.

Now the trend is reaching New York's elite: Along with Paul Weiss, Wall Street mainstays Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Debevoise & Plimpton and Davis Polk & Wardwell each announced new policies this week.

It was just last month that Morgan Stanley's chief legal officer, Eric Grossman, warned its outside law firms that those bringing lawyers back to the office "will have a significant performance advantage over those that do not," signaling that firms beholden to financial industry clients might have little flexibility on remote work.

But that was before U.S. coronavirus cases began spiking due to the highly contagious Delta variant. The spike has led to new masking guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as updated state masking orders.

New York City on Tuesday became the first major U.S. city to announce it would require proof of COVID-19 vaccination at restaurants, gyms and other businesses.

Cravath, often seen as a standard-setter, Davis Polk and Debevoise are now all mandating employee vaccinations before returning to the office, with Davis Polk warning employees it will deactivate building access cards of non-compliant employees. Paul Weiss is also threatening to revoke building access from unvaccinated employees.

"Unfortunately, cases of infection by the Delta variant are surging, especially among the unvaccinated. All of our U.S. offices are located in regions where the CDC reports a high risk of transmission," Karp wrote in his memo.

Davis Polk hasn't publicly changed its Sept. 13 return-to-office date, but Cravath has postponed its targeted reopening from after Labor Day to mid-October, a Cravath spokesperson confirmed.

In announcing its mandatory vaccination policy, Debevoise said it will begin phasing employees back into the office starting Oct. 11, according to The American Lawyer. A Debevoise spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Other Wall Street law firms have yet to state their plans or push back planned re-openings. And if policy differences emerge, the firms will have company among their banking clients, which are also divided over how aggressively to bring employees back.

Wells Fargo & Co and BlackRock Inc, the world's largest asset manager, have pushed their office returns back to October. But JPMorgan Chase & Co, which frequently turns to Debevoise for deal work, was among the first banks to bring back its workforce under CEO Jamie Dimon.

Other banks, like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, are implementing vaccination policies.

Citigroup, a longtime Paul Weiss client, said earlier it was hoping to have a small number of employees return to its New York headquarters starting last month but would allow most of its employees to work from home up to two days a week.

Other Big Law clients outside the financial industry -- including Alphabet Inc, Facebook Inc, Lyft Inc, Microsoft Corp, Netflix Inc, Pfizer Inc, Salesforce Inc, Tyson Foods Inc, Uber Technologies Inc, Walmart Inc, and The Walt Disney Company -- have recently detailed new masking and vaccination requirements, or postponed office-return plans, in light of the Delta variant.

Read More:

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Delta spike revives office return worries for lawyers with young kids

See you in November? Delta surge prompts law firms to rehash return plans

Morgan Stanley's CLO wants you back in the office - for good

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David Thomas reports on the business of law, including law firm strategy, hiring, mergers and litigation. He is based out of Chicago. He can be reached at d.thomas@thomsonreuters.com and on Twitter @DaveThomas5150.