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Big Law Agrees: Give Attorneys Flexibility as Offices Reopen

Nov. 10, 2021, 11:01 AM

Big Law firms that have shared their hodgepodge of plans for bringing lawyers back to the office have one resounding commonality—they’re letting attorneys work from home at least some of the time.

Bloomberg Law reached out to the 100 largest firms in the U.S. by gross revenue about their firm-wide office return policies. Nearly three-quarters (74) said they are allowing some form of outside-the-office work.

“Our attorneys and our personnel deserve the flexibility,” said Nixon Peabody managing partner Stephen Zubiago. “We’ve been able to maintain our service levels and meet the needs of our clients.”

The Bloomberg Law analysis shows that while many firms are eager to get lawyers in the office to preserve culture and train young associates, they realize that the lingering Covid-19 delta variant and the comfort of remote work are forcing them into a go-slow approach.

Forty-five firms, more than half of those who provided information, already require or will mandate at least one day of in-person work per week, according to the analysis. More than a quarter of the responding firms have already begun requiring lawyers to work in-person at least a few days each week.

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At least 23 major firms have delayed their office reopenings to 2022. Eight have yet to set a formal office-return date but plan to give lawyers 25 to 40 days of notice when they choose a date.

“It is a change to get back into the office for people,” said Ropes & Gray chair Julie Jones. “We do have big groups of colleagues, both in business support and in our associate ranks, who have not stepped foot in this place since March of 2020. And that is a huge mental adjustment.”

View the full data set here.

‘Miss Being Together’

Of the 100 firms that Bloomberg Law contacted, 20 didn’t respond, and another six provided some information but declined to discuss whether they would require in-person work.

While the 74 firms who did discuss their plans vary in their office-return timelines and requirements, flexibility is the common refrain.

Twenty-nine firms—including Davis Polk, Paul Hastings, and Akin Gump—do not or will not require lawyers to work in-person after the firm’s official office return date. These firms, however, still recommend or encourage some face time each week in an effort to get lawyers to voluntarily work in-person.

“We’re not looking to say, ‘OK, everybody march into the office and you gotta be there five days a week,’” said McDermott Will & Emery chair Ira Coleman, whose firm is recommending some in-person time each week. “We’re trying to do this because we miss being together a lot.”

Skadden, McGuireWoods, Seyfarth Shaw, and Cadwalader are among the firms requiring lawyers to work in-person at least three days per week after the firm officially reopens.

Read more: Why Law Firms Take Differing Paths on Office Returns: Explained

Firms such as BakerHostetler and Katten Muchin Rosenman have delayed their office returns until 2022 or indefinitely, though they encourage lawyers to work in-person occasionally until then.

They’ve given this transition period names like “BeTogether@Baker” and “KattenFlex” and offer perks like relaxed dress codes and free food, all in the name of enticing lawyers back to the office.

Some current and former Big Law associates say they view firms’ strong encouragement as essentially a mandatory policy. Legal recruiters say some associates who feel “bullied” into working in-person are even seeking new jobs that give them more flexibility.

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Vax or No Vax

About four in five of the responding firms require employee proof of Covid-19 vaccination and, in some cases, extend the policy to office visitors. At least half a dozen firms surveyed did not have a firm-wide vaccine mandate as of mid-October.

A new Occupational Safety and Health Administration emergency rule will soon mandate vaccinations or weekly testing for employers with more than 100 employees, including law firms. The rule goes into effect on Jan. 4 as many major firms begin their office reopenings.

Even before the federal mandate was published, firms reported high levels of vaccination among their U.S. workforce. Duane Morris and Hogan Lovells, which require vaccinations, say 95% and 94% of employees, respectively, have received the shots.

BakerHostetler doesn’t have a vaccine mandate but also said around 95% have gotten the shots. Baker Donelson also doesn’t require vaccines, but unvaccinated employees aren’t able to take advantage of certain flexible working options, according to the firm’s human resources director Alan McKiernon.

“Safety is first and foremost,” McKiernon said. “We would not have done anything if we didn’t think we were doing a good job of protecting our people.”

Even as law leaders cite firm culture and associate training as beneficiaries of face time, they don’t see mandating a full-time office return any time soon.

“They earned it by how they performed during the pandemic,” Nixon Peabody’s Zubiago said. “One of the ways that we can maximize our position in terms of retaining our talent—acquiring and attracting new talent—is by having these very progressive work policies that cater to the needs and desires of busy attorneys.”

—With assistance from Meghan Tribe.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ruiqi Chen in Washington, D.C. at rchen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com