Law Firms Monitor Delta Variant Spread, as Leaders Plan Office Return Policies

Posted July 9th, 2021.

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“It’s almost a day-by-day or week-by-week analysis,” said Michael Hammer, CEO of Dickinson Wright.

By Andrew Maloney

What You Need to Know

  • The Delta variant of COVID-19 could pose complications for office return plans.
  • Firms may have to readjust office return timelines or office guidelines, including mask and distancing mandates.
  • Many return-to-office policies at law firms are already flexible.

Many law firm leaders are eagerly directing their workforces to return to offices this summer or they are crafting return-to-office guideline plans for this fall. But the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant is giving some firm leaders pause as they actively monitor the spread of the variant.

While it hasn’t necessarily scuttled office return plans, it could still force some changes to office guidelines, even before those plans are fully implemented, according to interviews with law firm leaders and legal industry consultants.

Delta is now the most dominant strain of the virus in the United States, and surges are happening in places with lower vaccination rates, such as Missouri and Nevada. Analysts say although that news hasn’t slowed down the legal industry’s office reopening yet, it could force firm leaders to rethink their return-to-work guidelines and other in-office policies.

Dickinson Wright, ranked No. 126 in the latest Am Law 200, has offices across the U.S., including the Midwest, Southeast and Southwest, as well as an office in Toronto. CEO Michael Hammer said the firm is monitoring reports about how effective the vaccines are against the variants, whether fully vaccinated individuals may need booster shots down the road, and how the firm would handle that.

“We’re fortunate we have a higher vaccination rate, and right now nothing’s popped off in any of our locations that’s overly worrisome,” Hammer said. “There’s been a little bit of an increase [in infections] because of the Delta variant, but it hasn’t gotten to the level where we’d need to react.”

But he added, “it’s almost a day-by-day or week-by-week analysis, and then if it becomes dangerous, we’ll have to look at how many unvaccinated people we have and whether they’re working remotely,” Hammer said. “So [Delta and other variants] may not affect us that much. But time will tell.”

Sanford Heisler Sharp, a 50-lawyer firm with six offices, made COVID-19 vaccinations a requirement to return to the office, and the firm is considering tenure to determine how many days an employee should spend in the office.

“Whether or not we will be mask mandatory or social-distancing mandatory will definitely depend on what happens with the Delta variant, or any other variants,” said David Sanford, chairman of the plaintiffs firm, in an interview.

“We’re entering a new phase of this virus,” said Sanford. “And like everyone else, we’ll have to consider what we do as we move forward in order to ensure as much as we can everybody’s safety.”

The Delta variant has led to surges of hospitalizations in Missouri. A handful of Missouri-founded firms declined to immediately weigh in on the topic. A representative for Spencer Fane declined to comment. Others, such as Armstrong Teasdale, Polsinelli and Husch Blackwell, were unavailable to comment by press time.

Some of the reluctance to speak on the issue may be the conflicting information about the variant, notes Kristin Stark, a law firm consultant of Fairfax Associates.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of conflicting information between the World Health Organization and CDC on this issue,” she said, noting the mixed guidance on whether vaccinated people should still have some restrictions. “I don’t think law firm leaders are really grappling with it yet, because they’re all hoping people are going to be vaccinated and this won’t be an issue.”

Another law firm consultant at Fairfax, Lisa Smith, said the variant may prompt more firms to require their in-office workers to get vaccinated.

“People might have to get more cautious” because of the variant, she said, and it may “slow down some of the firm return to office plans or changes how they go about it.”

However, she added that most law firm plans are relatively flexible anyway.

That’s especially the case for smaller and midsize firms that gravitate toward more flexible plans, said Dan Scott, a Michigan-based law firm recruiter and director of Angott Search Group,

“Even the bigger firms are giving associates a greater degree of flexibility,” he said, although “they do want to see faces in the office at least some of the time.”

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