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Why Law Firms Take Differing Paths on Office Returns: Explained

Nov. 10, 2021, 11:00 AM

The Covid-19 delta variant has delayed and interrupted law firm office returns. Many major firms are on the second or third versions of their plans.

Schiff Hardin delayed its mid-October return to Nov. 4, then deferred it indefinitely. Perkins Coie postponed its Oct. 1 return to Jan. 4, while Akin Gump is going ahead with its November reopening.

Regardless of what firms decide to do now—or ultimately—one thing is clear: Flexibility is here to stay.

“Change is in the air,” said McDermott Will & Emery chairman Ira Coleman. “You’re not just going to cross some line and go back to 2019.”

Here’s how firms are handling the change:

Are law firms requiring office returns?

Firms mostly fall into one of three camps—some have required a few days of in-person work since the summer, others are starting hybrid office-home work policies this fall, and the rest are delaying returns until early 2022 or beyond.

Most are offering some mix of in-person and at-home work. Firms like Katten Muchin Rosenman and BakerHostetler are encouraging associates to work from the office on designated days, and Ropes & Gray is asking lawyers to work in the office one or two days a week starting Nov. 8. Others, like Cooley LLP, have told lawyers that they don’t have to work in-person at all this year.

Certain firms have been stricter. Baker Donelson was one of the earliest major firms to require lawyers to work in-person at least part of each week. Since June, the 650-lawyer firm has asked employees to work in-person 50% to 80% of the time, depending on their roles.

What is so great about office flexibility?

Law firms that try to turn back the clock to 2019 and require a full five days of in-office work risk associate attrition. Associates who feel “bullied” into working in-person are seeking new, more flexible jobs, legal recruiters say.

“There is a great demand for talent in the legal profession right now,” said Nixon Peabody managing partner Stephen Zubiago. “We think 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.”

A few months of hybrid work can also help lawyers arrange things like childcare and new commutes, according to Ropes & Gray chair Julie Jones.

“It’s a legitimate concern to say, ‘Wait, I don’t know how I’m going to get a couple hours in the day to be commuting on either end,’” Jones said.

Why do firms want to bring lawyers back to the office?

Working in-person is crucial to maintaining firm culture in the long run and to train new classes of associates who may have never worked in the office, according to multiple firm leaders.

“Working fully remotely for a sustained period could come with a significant cost—collaboration, collegiality, the innovation, the inspiration, the mentoring, the training,” BakerHostetler chairman Paul Schmidt said.

Baker Donelson has hired two groups of incoming new associate classes during the pandemic. “Those are our future shareholders,” human resources director Alan McKiernon said.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure our attorneys and their teams are well-trained in the areas that they’re going to be doing their work for their clients,” he said. “That training is done best in person and hands on.”

Client demand may be pushing lawyers to get out of the house—Morgan Stanley chief legal officer Eric Grossman sent a memo to the company’s outside firms in July suggesting that firms working remotely risked losing Morgan Stanley’s business.

How do vaccines fit in with office returns?

Law firms have also taken sides in the vaccine debate. Most firms have vaccination requirements for lawyers who work in-person, but at least half a dozen do not.

Nixon Peabody announced a vaccine mandate in August for employees that wanted to work in-person.

“That made the argument for allowing people to come back in the office much, much stronger,” said Stephen Zubiago, the firm’s managing partner. “We could guarantee them that they wouldn’t be working with somebody who was unvaccinated.”

Baker Donelson has no vaccine mandate. Instead, vaccinated employees are asked to submit proof and those who are unvaccinated must wear masks inside the office.

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 at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com