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Firms Delay Office Returns, Raising Fear of ‘Irreparable Harm’

Sept. 14, 2021, 10:00 AM

Many law firms targeting office returns shortly after Labor Day have since delayed those plans, citing the recent spike in Covid-19 infections caused by the delta variant.

Dechert and Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner have bumped their reopening dates to Oct. 4 from early September. Mintz Levin, which was slated to reopen on Monday, has moved its reopening date to Oct.18, as has Wall Street’s Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.

Elite New York firm Davis Polk & Wardwell went ahead with its office reopening on Monday, but said it wouldn’t require associates and counsel to come in for a specific number of days per week. Rival Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, which previously said it would expect lawyers to be in the office three days a week starting Monday, didn’t respond to inquiries about the status of that plan.

Law firms that have already been out of the office for nearly 18 months could miss the window for reopening in 2021. That has some leaders worried about how long-term remote work will affect the future of their firms.

“How long can we wait ‘til we start doing irreparable harm to your culture, to training, to all those value propositions from in-person interaction?” BakerHostetler chairman Paul Schmidt said in an interview with Bloomberg Law.

The firm planned to officially reopen its office Sept. 8. Faced with the rapid increase in infection rates in all of the cities where it has offices, BakerHostetler decided last month that it would postpone that plan to a date still to be determined, Schmidt said.

Firms have to balance concerns about the impact of remote work with the demands of their own lawyers, amid one of the tightest talent markets in recent memory.

Voluntary or Mandatory?

Big Law firms moved to close their offices as the pandemic spread across the U.S. last spring, sending attorneys and staff home to work. In the months since the Covid-19 pandemic, law firms have attempted to come up with plans to safely reintroduce their attorneys back to the office, while also trying to retain some of the flexibility gained from working remotely during the pandemic.

Some firms reopened their offices on a voluntary basis, often with vaccination requirements, as Covid-19 cases began to slow earlier this year. Many circled early September on their calendars for official reopenings, mandating attorneys’ attendance in some capacity at most firms, before pushing those dates back.

“Throughout the pandemic, our people’s safety has been and continues to be our paramount concern and the foundational principle guiding our decisions,” said Hogan Lovells’ regional managing partner for the Americas Richard Lorenzo, in a statement emailed to Bloomberg Law.

The firm delayed its reopening from September to November 1.

For lawyers at some firms where returns are still voluntary, but encouraged, the expectations may not be clear, Larry Scott, a Texas-based legal recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa, said.

“There’s not much difference between highly encouraged and mandatory,” Scott said. “I have heard when talking to friends socially that their offices have been open since whatever date. And pretty much everybody is going.“

Window Closing

The window for firms to reopen this year is increasingly narrow, according to BakerHostetler’s Schmidt.

“Once you get past the beginning of November, you’re looking at Thanksgiving, and then the December holidays,” he said.

Reopening around the holidays poses a number of challenges, Schmidt said. There is the increased risk for potential exposure to the virus as people gather to celebrate and travel plans that will keep many out of the office.

“If you miss that window, you’re probably talking about sometime early in 2022, which is a really daunting thing to think about,” Schmidt said.

“I don’t think it’s sustainable in the long run,” he said of keeping office attendance voluntary. “The question is: How long can the short run be?” he said.

Firms weighing return-to-office plans have a lot to balance, said Kent Zimmermann, a consultant for law firm management at The Zeughauser Group.

There are benefits to working in-person, particularly for relationship building across practices and offices as well as for younger lawyers, Zimmermann said.

At the same time, firms are trying to make office return decisions amid a talent war that has resulted in big bonuses and salary bumps aimed at keeping lawyers from looking elsewhere. They are taking extra care to try to make their lawyers feel comfortable by offer flexibility and ensuring they are “not drawing lines in the sand unnecessarily,” Zimmermann said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Meghan Tribe in New York at mtribe@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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