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Texas Firms Not Following State Rush in ‘Return Home’ to Office

May 26, 2021, 4:00 PM

For Baker Botts lawyers in Houston, Dallas, and Austin, returning to the office is voluntary for now. Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe plans a flexible model for its two Texas offices. Burns Charest, a litigation boutique in Dallas, is requiring lawyers to come back—but not until mid-August.

Despite Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s push for a fast return to pre-pandemic normalcy, law firms in the state are taking a nuanced approach on when lawyers return to offices—or if they need to come back at all.

“We had some folks that were gung-ho and were hoping we could get back this month or early next,” said Warren Burns, a founding partner at Burns Charest in Dallas. “We decided Aug. 16 will be our ‘come home’ date and give folks several months to plan and figure out what school will be like in the fall for their kids.”

Firms with offices in Texas are largely following the example of those in other parts of the country. Most Big Law firms are permitting attorneys back in the office on a voluntary basis, with most emphasizing flexibility and few mandating full-time office returns, at least for now.

The approach runs counter to the state’s governor, who has been pushing businesses, government offices, and schools to go back to a pre-pandemic environment. Abbott, a Republican, issued an order last week that prohibits government entities, including counties, school districts, and public health authorities, from requiring or mandating mask wearing.

At Baker Botts, active lawyers and support staff with private offices can return to work subject to capacity limitations, said Tom Orewyler, a firm spokesman. There is no target date yet for any requirement that they return to the office.

Orrick plans to ramp up office access over the rest of the year firmwide. Currently, a team is working on developing a hybrid workplace model and will share more concrete plans over the summer.

Dallas-based litigation boutique Lynn Pinker Hurst & Schwegmann is sticking with its hybrid approach. In early March, the firm announced all staff would need to return to the office full-time three days a week, said Eric Pinker, the firm’s managing partner.

Most partners, however, have been working in the office rather than from home.

“Small firms just work differently,” Pinker said. “We emphasize collaboration. Many large firms, attorneys are already remote in that a Dallas associate and a Chicago senior associate work for a New York partner on an L.A. case. Pre-Covid, they were never going to meet in person. We don’t operate like that.”

Houston-based real-estate firm Wilson, Cribbs and Goren PC will return to 100% in office work on July 6, said Anthony Marré, the managing shareholder.

“We’ve pretty much been back in action at about 70% capacity since the beginning of the year,” Marré said. “We own our building in Midtown Houston, and our firm of 21 attorneys plus staff are the sole occupants, so we do not have to worry about other tenants.”

Vinson & Elkins LLP will allow most of its staff to work remotely and won’t require attorneys to come into the office unless it is necessary to meet client needs, said Melissa Anderson, a firm spokesperson.

While the firm anticipates attorneys will return to the office on a more regular basis later in the year, it plans to continue to give attorneys flexibility around where they work due to the investments it has made in technology, Anderson said.

Vinson & Elkins has encouraged employees to consider being vaccinated but does not plan on adopting a formal vaccination policy, she said.

Houston-based Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing P.C., or AZA, which starting last year required employees to work in the office, opted to also require attorneys and staff get vaccinated, said John Zavitsanos, the firm’s co-founding partner. The policy comes with health-related exceptions, such as pregnancy.

To date, most employees have been vaccinated, though there is not a deadline by which they must do so.

“We don’t want to fire anyone for not getting the vaccine,” Zavitsanos said. “This is really primarily for their safety and for the safety of their co-workers.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nushin Huq at correspondents@bloomberglaw.com
To contact the editor on this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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