More law firms scrap October return plans, opting to watch and wait

REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Ropes & Gray and Holland & Knight had planned to welcome back most lawyers and staff next month
  • Consultants say firms are facing a future in flux

Law firms are going back to the drawing board on office reopenings – and more are settling for a big fat question mark, at least for now.

With September nearly over and the current wave of U.S. coronavirus cases just beginning to recede, some law firms that had previously targeted October for mandatory office returns are canceling those plans without setting a new date. Ropes & Gray and Holland & Knight are among the latest, scrapping returns that were scheduled for Oct. 18 and Oct. 12, respectively.

A representative for Ropes & Gray confirmed Friday that the firm has no new date set for its next reopening phase, which was to include "more regular use" of its offices. The Boston-founded firm is continuing to encourage voluntary in-person work with "free breakfast and lunch for those who do come in," the representative said.

In an internal memo, Holland & Knight said a full reopening anytime in 2021 is “unlikely.” The Sept. 15 memo, published Monday by legal blog Above the Law, promised workers would get at least 30 days notice before a required return. Representatives for the Miami-founded firm did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

Last week, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld chair Kim Koopersmith delivered a similar message to lawyers and staff who had been primed to return in October, saying vaccinated workers were still welcome but a mandatory office return must wait for an undetermined date.

It was the second delay for Akin Gump, which like other firms had already pushed September reopening plans to October or November. A handful of others, including Cahill Gordon & Reindel, Willkie Farr & Gallagher and Sanford Heisler Sharp, have set their targeted reopening for 2022.

Cooley and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati were among the first law firms to announce earlier in the summer that U.S. attorneys and staff wouldn't be required to return to the office for the remainder of the year.

The moves reflect the extremely fluid situation law firms are facing, industry consultants said. Firm leaders are juggling the interests and preferences of lawyers and clients while keeping track of fast-moving events and fast-changing data, they said.

“It’s very much in flux,” said Kristin Stark, a principal at law firm consultancy Fairfax Associates.

Most law firms don’t have precise metrics or benchmarks set for determining when people should come back into the office, said Stark and Zeughauser Group consultant Kent Zimmermann. Firms are trying to balance competing interests, which includes lawyers who don’t want to return to the office full-time.

Meanwhile, they are resigned to watching the actions of their clients and counterparts, and looking for promising signs – like Monday's announcement by Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE that their COVID-19 vaccine induced a robust immune response in 5 to 11 year olds.

The prospect of more school-age children being vaccinated is good news, but “how good of news remains to be seen,” Stark said.

(Correction: A previous version of this story indicated Cahill Gordon had set an office return date before postponing it to 2022. In fact the firm had announced in March 2021 that no regular office attendance for lawyers and staff would be anticipated before 2022.)

Read more:

Pfizer/BioNTech say data show COVID-19 vaccine safe and protective in kids

Akin Gump nixes October office return, setting no new target

Seyfarth Shaw just tightened its vaccine mandate. Will other firms follow?

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

Reporting by Xiumei Dong

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

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.

Thomson Reuters

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.