Law firms torn on office returns as COVID-19 questions swirl

Legal offices of the Goodwin Procter law firm in Washington, D.C., U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • For lawyers and staff at Goodwin Procter, the office is voluntary again until mid-March
  • Kramer Levin delays hybrid return, citing Omicron, while others watch and wait

(Reuters) - Law firm Goodwin Procter this week told its U.S. lawyers and staff that working in the office will be "entirely voluntary" until mid-March, citing the evolving state of the pandemic.

The Boston-founded law firm had been "encouraging" lawyers to work in the office at least two days per week starting in November, and had planned for its professional staff to be in-person three days per week beginning in January, a firm representative said.

"Out of an abundance of caution, we are modifying our approach to in-office operations in the United States," managing partnerMark Bettencourt wrote in an internal memo on Monday. The new voluntary attendance policy applies through March 14.

The legal industry's approach to reopening offices has shifted along with the waves of the pandemic. The Delta variant prompted many law firms to tighten vaccine mandates and delay widespread returns until this fall, while some opted to wait for next year. Firms are now balancing fears of a potential Omicron wave with optimism that vaccines are defanging the virus, even if it's here to stay.

Several law firms in the United Kingdom, including Allen & Overy, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Herbert Smith Freehills, have asked lawyers and staff in the UK to work from home starting Monday in line with new government guidance as Omicron cases have risen there, representatives from the firms confirmed this week.

In the U.S., Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel said in an internal memo Tuesday that it's delaying the planned start of a new hybrid work model from Jan. 4 to Feb. 1 in response to Omicron and rising case counts, especially in New York. The firm is still asking New York and Silicon Valley workers to come to the office at least one day a week until February.

Many other U.S. firms are sticking with their existing plans for now, whether that's preparing to bring lawyers back into the office a few days a week or maintaining current levels of in-office or remote work.

A Sidley Austin representative said the Chicago-founded firm is “generally in the office" after a Nov. 1 return date and has no update. Lawyers and staff at Seattle-founded Davis Wright Tremaine will report to the firm according to their “designated hybrid schedule” starting Jan. 3 as planned, according to a Dec. 9 internal email from managing partner Scott MacCormack.

The firm is “monitoring the situation with the Omicron variant and will adjust course if needed” but has no current plans to do so, MacCormack wrote.

Employment law firm Sanford Heisler Sharp will require lawyers and staff to work in the office one day per week – on Wednesdays – beginning Jan. 19, chairman David Sanford said in a firmwide email Friday. The plaintiffs-side employment firm originally planned for lawyers to be present between two and four days per week, but scaled back due to Omicron concerns.

Sanford estimated that a quarter of his firm's 100 lawyers and staff have not worked in its offices, as they joined Sanford Heisler during the pandemic.

“For people who have never been in an office before, it’s important they understand what it’s like,” Sanford said.

Read more:

Major law firm cancels holiday parties after COVID-19 cases tied to N.Y. bash

More firms pause office return plans, eyeing November or beyond

Goodwin delays office return to November amid Delta spread

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Sara Merken reports on privacy and data security, as well as the business of law, including legal innovation and key players in the legal services industry. Reach her at sara.merken@thomsonreuters.com

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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.

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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 Xiumei.Dong@thomsonreuters.com.